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Is There Anything Good about Loneliness?

Loneliness has a prominent place in the news these days. As the number of people who live alone continues to grow, as does the number of seniors, concern swells. Studies suggesting all sorts of dire correlates of loneliness increase the worry to a state of near panic.

Neither living alone nor growing old means that you will end up lonely. Loneliness is different from living alone or spending time alone. Many people, including most who are single at heart, savor their solitude. Loneliness is not about savoring, it is about pain. It is the distress we feel when our social relationships are not what we want them to be. People can feel deeply lonely when they are in a marriage and when they are in a crowd.

Because loneliness is so painful, it needs to be taken seriously. Yet as psychologists, it is worth stepping back and asking whether any good can come from experiencing loneliness. Recently, several writers have dared to suggest that the answer is yes.

Jessica Crispin is one of them. In a beautifully-written opinion piece in the New York Times, “St. Teresa and the Single Ladies,” Crispin suggests:

“But loneliness and vulnerability can be tools, if you can stand the pressure of them. Loneliness awakens not only your attention, as you scan rooms in the hopes of finding someone to alleviate it, but it also drives your empathy.”

The brilliant author and social critic, Vivian Gornick, also described the power and the potential in loneliness in her essay in the Nation, “The Dread of Loneliness“:

“…loneliness, once demystified, is not only not fatal, it can be a source of revelation. If you determined on not drowning in it – that is, if you swam steadily against the current – you discovered a power of survival you’d never have thought part of your psychic apparatus.”

I’m a true believer in research-based conclusions, so I see personal essays such as Crispin’s and Gornick’s as sources of intriguing hypotheses rather than evidence for the positive possibilities in loneliness. They are wake-up calls to researchers to broaden their perspectives on the meanings of loneliness and other painful psychological experiences.

There are some telling precedents, such as what we learned from mountains of research on depression. Like loneliness, depression is a painful experience. Psychological research suggests that it is linked to other unfortunate outcomes. Yet, studies also showed that depressed people sometimes have special insights and sensitivities. For example, they can be more realistic in their appraisals of other people, when those who are not depressed are too quick to be taken in by what other people want them to believe.

I discovered that myself in research I did with people who were mildly depressed and those who were not depressed at all. My colleague Julie Lane and I played video and audio recordings of people in several studies who were being less than honest. In one of the studies, participants talked to an art student about her paintings, including a few that they really disliked. In another, college students tried to ingratiate themselves with other students. It was the mildly depressed people, rather than the people who were not depressed, who were particularly attuned to the false reassurances and the phoniness.

That doesn’t mean I’d want to spend time feeling lonely or depressed. I wouldn’t. But painful experiences of all sorts are not all bad. And that’s a valuable thing to know.

[Note: In the interviews I did for my latest book, people told me how they found or created lifespaces that afforded them just the right mix of time alone and time together. If you are interested, take a look at How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.]

Senior man photo available from Shutterstock

Is There Anything Good about Loneliness?


Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2016). Is There Anything Good about Loneliness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2016/01/is-there-anything-good-about-loneliness/

 

Last updated: 13 Jan 2016
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.