Being alone vs being lonely — what’s the difference?

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By Fournine

Jan 24, 20225 mins

Being alone vs being lonely — what’s the difference?

Contrary to popular belief, being alone and feeling lonely are not one and the same. While, in many cases, the former is a prerequisite for the latter, they can and do occur independently of each other. You can absolutely feel lonely without ever physically being alone, and in a similar vein, being on your own does not necessarily mean you’re experiencing loneliness...

Feeling lonely when you’re amongst other people stems from experiencing a disconnect between yourself and the people you’re with. You have company - yes. But it’s the superficial kind - not the kind that quenches your need for social contact. 

Being around other people can only curb your loneliness if you genuinely enjoy their company or have meaningful interactions with them. If you’re in a social situation that doesn't meet these criteria, regardless of whether or not you consider them a friend, being around them is no more likely to make you feel less lonely than pushing your shopping trolley through a crowd of people at your local supermarket. 

If anything, the former of the two situations is likely to make you feel more lonely - because intentionally spending time with people you have no connection with, friend or not, can be pretty soul-destroying. Whereas if you just so happen to be amongst people while doing your weekly shop, there’s no expectation for you to interact with those you have no connection with.

Credit: Jim West / Alamy

Now, whether or not you are alone in any given situation is based purely on the cold, hard facts - it isn’t actually negative in itself. It simply means there are no other people in your immediate vicinity. Being lonely, on the other hand, is inherently negative. No one wants to feel lonely, but many of us desire alone time - and plenty of it.

Introverts, for instance, are naturally drawn to being by themselves - and so being alone could hardly be deemed a bad thing. In fact, for introverts, the negative feelings that come with loneliness are more likely to be felt when in the company of others. That’s because they typically gain energy when on their own and feel robbed of their energy when they’re in social situations. 

Integrative psychotherapist Gustavo Camilo tells Four Nine: “Introverts tend not to connect easily with people they do not know. For them, loneliness can be experienced in a room full of people as it is not the number of people that determines their experience but the quality of the interaction taking place.”

The reason that the terms “alone” and “lonely” are so often conflated is partly due to our perception of being alone. Many of us assume that the only emotion that can come from regularly spending time by ourselves is loneliness. 

Just take a look at the words themselves - “alone” and “lonely”- and the arrangement of the letters. They’re clearly etymologically related. So, it’s pretty difficult to differentiate between the two considering, at their very core, they’re essentially seen as the same thing.

But if we were to instead use one of the synonyms of “alone”, we’d find that there would be much fewer negative connotations.

Credit: agefotostock / Alamy

The word “solitude”, for example, essentially has the same meaning as “alone”. They’re both defined by an absence of company. The difference here is that unlike “alone”, when we use the word “solitude”, we’re normally referring to someone who is perfectly content being by themselves.

So, going back to the original point - while there may not immediately appear to be much of a difference between being alone and feeling lonely, counselling psychologist Raluca Ursica tells Four Nine: “There is a big difference between loneliness… and solitude…

She says that loneliness can be “perceived as emotional and sometimes physical pain”, whereas solitude is a “choice to be alone and can bring self-awareness and calm.”

The thing is, though, very few of us actually use the word “solitude” - even in a positive way. It’s just not in most people’s everyday vocabulary. Even an introvert would be more likely to tell you, “I like being alone”, as opposed to, “I like solitude” - which goes to show that “alone” can be used in a positive way. Again, it’s simply an adjective to describe the absence of other people.  We, as individuals, project our own ideas onto the word - based on whether or not we personally enjoy being alone. 

Ultimately, the topic of loneliness is far too nuanced to suggest that the only natural consequence of being alone is feeling lonely. It’s not a one-size-fits-all concept; it occurs in different situations depending on the person. Being alone certainly can mean feeling lonely - but not necessarily. 

Broadly speaking, introverts are more likely to feel lonely in big groups of people whereas extroverts are more likely to feel lonely on their own. But in either situation, both feelings of loneliness are completely valid. 

So, if any of you are struggling with loneliness at the moment and are unsure as to why, we would first encourage you to discover whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. Take our quiz to find out.

Featured image credit: Mladen Mitrinovic / Alamy


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