For such a little word, “alone” carries some big meanings. Sometimes “alone” is used to mean “single,” and I have often found that troubling. When other people are discussing a single person and they say, “she’s alone,” they often do so with sadness and pity. What they mean is, “She doesn’t have anyone” or “He’s alone in the world.”
There are single people who truly are alone in the world, just as there are married people who fit that description. (Having a spouse is no guarantee of having someone who cares about you or even talks to you.) On the average, though, single people are more connected to other people than married people are. I’ve written often about how single people have more friends, do more to maintain their ties with siblings and parents and friends and neighbors, do more to participate in the life of their cities and towns, and do more than their share of caring for aging parents and others who need help. In contrast, when couples move in together or get married, they tend to become more insular. That happens even if they don’t have children.
Single people who fit this typical pattern of maintaining a diversity of personal relationships are probably less vulnerable than, say, married people who invest all their relationship capital in their spouse. Research on susceptibility to depression is consistent with that suggestion. So is research on “emotionships,” which are the relationships we have with other people that are emotion-specific (for example, looking to different people when we are angry vs. happy vs. sad).
“Alone in the world” is the ominous meaning of “alone.” There is another, more uplifting meaning, that many people embrace – single people in particular, and especially those who are single at heart. “Alone” can mean alone in solitude – having time and space to yourself. To the many people who savor their solitude, time alone is a blessing and a gift. To some (myself included), it may even feel like a necessity. To those who crave solitude rather than fearing it, time alone can offer wonderful opportunities for creativity, relaxation, rejuvenation, reflection, and spirituality.
When I spent some time asking people about their ideal living situations, I found that everyone wants some time alone and some time with other people, but the proportions vary enormously from person to person. When seeking time to themselves, people are making room in their lives for that positive, nourishing, and uplifting sense of being alone. When seeking meaningful connections with other people, they are trying to keep that other sense of aloneness, being alone in the world, at bay. When we find just the right balance of time alone and time with others, it is magical.