In Isolation, Coping with Loneliness Becomes Vital

being hardwired for social interaction exacerbates feelings of loneliness

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Self-isolating alone is very different than with family or roommates, BBC News reported. People around the world who live alone are struggling more without any social interaction than those who live with others. Being mindful of solitude can help.

Young man sitting on his sofa using laptop
Living alone during self-isolation rather than isolating with others is more difficult due to feelings of loneliness versus understanding the value of solitude. Photo by fizkes / Shutterstock

Society is increasingly drifting online in the wake of social distancing measures put into place across the globe. “These days, the same screens that host our work meetings carry the burden of our social lives too,” BBC News columnist Kelly-Leigh Cooper said. “With the exception of conversations over the telecom or chance encounters with neighbors by the bins, all of my human contact is now online.”

Almost everyone enjoys making in-person connections with friends and family and finds themselves missing it. But for people living alone with no spouse, kids, parents, or roommates to welcome them home, social events were vital in breaking up solitude. Now, with everything from churches to nightclubs going virtual, solitude is turning into loneliness. Here’s why.

Social Creatures without Society

Part of coping with loneliness is understanding why we feel lonely. Human beings aren’t just social by way of custom and practice; we’ve been this way since before we were humans.

We evolved in groups and tribes and bands, and when we’re part of a group or a band or a tribe, to be separated from that group can be quite threatening,” said Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance. “This is in part because we needed one another to survive in a hostile environment.”

Dr. Siegel said that, additionally, many of us live in urban environments, so we rarely spend a moment in the day truly alone. When that suddenly changes, it can be disorienting. Some of this comes from the society in which teenagers live, he said—when we’re young, we come to believe that popularity is vital, so therefore, being alone on a Friday or Saturday night is for losers and rejects.

“It’s also difficult because we know from child development that it’s actually contact with others that provides our sense of emotional regulation,” he said. “We use others to modulate our moods when we’re having a hard time; it helps us to create our sense of identity. And while Buddhist psychology is interested in dismantling that, most of us are kind of attached to our identity, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m Ron; I’m a psychologist, I’m a dad’—those sorts of things.”

A Lesson of Interbeing

Dr. Siegel said that when we consider all of humanity’s commonalities—that we each have similar joys and sorrows we experience in certain stages of life, for example—we realize that we’re all in this together.

“This sort of interpersonal connection fosters awareness of what we might call interbeing,” he said. “That’s Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Zen master’s word for this connection to something larger than ourselves. It could be being part of a family, part of a neighborhood, part of the natural and human world.”

Dr. Siegel said that most religions have a common thread of focusing on interbeing in one form or another, which leads to monks, nuns, and others who “remove themselves from the hubbub of daily life” to experience this. When they do, they face loneliness—which tends to feel forced upon us—and overcome it by learning the value of solitude.

“Solitude is about valuing being with oneself, choosing it, recognizing that it’s part of our common humanity,” he said. “Mindfulness, by reducing the self-focus and increasing our interest and curiosity and awareness of interbeing, supports solitude over loneliness. It makes it so that when we’re alone, we’re much more likely to experience it as solitude than as loneliness.”

Dr. Ronald D. Siegel contributed to this article. Dr. Siegel is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, and an Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He received his Doctor of Psychology degree from Rutgers University.