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Alone or Lonely?


Probably all of us have experienced loneliness at some time in our lives. But what, really, is loneliness, as distinct from simply being alone? Philosophers through the ages have noted that being alone has two very different sides—it’s a bane for some, a blessing for others.

The great theologian Paul Tillich drew a sharp distinction between loneliness and solitude. Our language, he wrote, “has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” When someone we love dies or leaves us, when we dearly wish companionship but can’t find it, we experience the pain of loneliness. But when we are alone and in touch with our own deepest feelings, or when we commune with nature or God or our own creative powers, we experience the blessings of solitude. (Or think about the last time you had the whole house to yourself, free to indulge in a bit of quiet relaxation.) When the poet William Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” I believe he was describing such blessed solitude.

As a psychiatrist, I have treated many patients who couldn’t stand “being alone.” Usually, this was because they couldn’t bear being with themselves. They were often compulsive partiers—virtually addicted to the club scene, unending social engagements, or endless chitchat with superficial “friends.” (Nowadays, I wonder how many lost souls perpetually inhabit Internet chat rooms or social networks like Facebook.) These relentless people-seekers are close kin to those who compulsively travel to exotic locales, only to find dusty disappointment. To these people, Socrates addressed a pointed question: “How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away!” Addressing similarly disenchanted travelers centuries later, the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need . . . where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.”

Of course, we humans are basically social creatures, and even the stiff-upper-lipped Stoics valued the blessings of friendship. But friendship presumes that we first have befriended ourselves. When we go as supplicants to another human being—begging, as it were, for company—we are indulging our dependency, not expressing our friendship. Ironically, going hat-in-hand like this usually pushes other people away. True friendship is a relationship between equals; it is made lopsided by one party’s intense neediness. As the sage of the Talmud, Hillel the Elder, asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” We might add, “If I can’t stand my own company, who will be able to stand me?”

That said, there is surely nothing wrong with seeking out a friendly face or phoning a family member when we feel lonely. Indeed, there may be compelling reasons for doing so. As recent research has shown, loneliness turns out to be a serious public health problem. Even among health-care professionals, few seem aware that loneliness is closely linked with numerous emotional and physical ills, including an increased risk of heart disease and an overactive inflammatory response, especially among the elderly and infirm. Social contact may be particularly important for those who are isolated by sickness, infirmity, or clinical depression. For some, joining a support group can help decrease isolation, allow friendships to form, and give the lonely person an opportunity both to receive and to provide help. This reciprocity can bolster the lonely person’s self-esteem and overall well-being.

So by all means, let us find true companions. But ultimately, the “cure” for loneliness is not the temporary balm of company but the enduring strength of self-reliance. As Tillich put it, “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.”

Ronald Pies, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. He is the author, most recently, of The Three-Petalled Rose: How the Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism Can Create a Healthy, Fulfilled, and Flourishing Life.

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