Because I’m single and live alone, people who don’t know me very well sometimes wonder whether I lead a lonely life. I can tell you exactly how long I can spend completely alone, with no face-to-face contact with any other humans, before I feel lonely: 15 days. I know because I tried it.
It wasn’t meant to be an experiment in loneliness. I thought I was giving myself the gift of a writing retreat: I had read about writers who isolate themselves in a charming beach house in a deserted seaside town, and it was easy for me to create my own version. I was working on my latest book, and I already lived on my own in a little beach town. The isolation took care of itself; conveniently, the friends I see most often were all preoccupied at the time with traveling or caring for an ailing parent or some such.
The first week was pure bliss. During the second, I started to miss meaningful interactions with other people, but I was still mostly fine. But then I was done.
In my day-to-day life, I rarely feel lonely. Instead, I revel in solitude, savoring long hours of immersion in reading, writing, cooking, Netflix or whatever else calls out to me. I enjoy my friends, too. I don’t socialize much with people I don’t care about, so most of my time with others is engaging and warm, or neutral at worst. Afterward, though, I love returning to my empty, quiet home.
Because loneliness is the pain of missing out on the relationship experiences you wish you had, the remedy should be more quality time with other people. When my fanciful writer’s retreat turned into a lonely abyss, it took the return of my friends to pull me out of it.
Yet for less acute experiences, I can recover nicely in other ways. A long walk on the beach or bluffs, or some verdant trail, might begin with sadness or stress, but it will almost always end with peacefulness and calm. Intellectual absorption works for me, too. When I first moved to Charlottesville and knew no one other than the people I had met briefly during my job interview, I spent most of my second evening writing a scholarly article, surrounded by rooms full of unpacked boxes.
I’ve been single all my life. According to prevailing cultural narratives, loneliness should not have to work so hard to catch me. As part of our research on perceptions of single people, my colleagues and I created biographical profiles and asked study participants for their impressions. The people in the profiles were described in identical ways, except that half the time, the profile was said to be of a single person, and the other half, a married one. Sometimes we described the person in the profiles as 25 years old and other times as 40. Participants routinely judged the single people as lonelier than the married people, and they thought the single people were especially lonely if they were 40 instead of 25.
Those impressions are most likely wrong. I’ve scoured academic journals for relevant studies, and I cannot find even one that shows that people who get married become less lonely than they were when they were single. But there is research showing that people who marry become less connected to friends and family than they were before. Although definitive long-term studies have not yet been conducted, the available evidence suggests that single people become more comfortable over time with their single lives, not less so.
Surely there are single people who are chronically lonely, just as there are married people who feel the same way. Yet the stereotypes that insist that single means lonely gloss over the diversity of experiences among the 107 million adults (in the United States alone) who are not married. Researchers have examined the psychological profiles of people who are afraid to be single, and people who like spending time alone. Both sets of studies show the same thing: People who are not afraid to be single and people who like spending time alone are less likely to experience loneliness. They are psychologically strong in other ways, too. For example, they are less likely to be neurotic and more likely to be open to new experiences.
My own interest is in people who are single at heart — those who live their best, most authentic and most meaningful lives by living single. My preliminary findings suggest that people who are single at heart don’t worry about being lonely; instead, they embrace solitude. What’s painful for all of these different types of people is not time alone but not having enough of it.
Reports about the dire consequences of loneliness seem to be proliferating, which is curious considering that, at least among high school and college students, loneliness has been declining for decades. I think the stories are expressing the kinds of fears that always bubble up in the midst of profound social changes. As the sociologist and author Eric Klinenberg has noted, the past half century marked “the first time in human history [when] great numbers of people … have begun settling down as singletons.”
I do think that loneliness should be taken seriously. For people whose loneliness is searing and relentless, concern is appropriate. But be cautious about swooping in to save those you only believe to be lonely because they are single or live alone. Those people may already feel liberated by the life they’ve chosen to live.