Solitude, loneliness, isolation... We give many names to the phenomenon of not being around other people, most of them negative. It can feel like a curse, but psychologists say being alone can also be a blessing, even when it's forced on you during a pandemic.
"Being alone is a natural part of the human condition," says Sonia Lippke, a professor of health psychology and behavioural medicine at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. Some people enjoy being alone and recognise its benefits, while others can hardly bear it. "But it doesn't have to frighten you," Lippke says.
Aloneness isn't the same as loneliness, of course.
"Being alone is associated with personal autonomy and independence, and loneliness with emotional deprivation and loss of autonomy. Being lonely means being captive to aloneness, as it were," remarks Janosch Schobin, a sociologist at the University of Kassel.
Recent research shows that a certain amount of aloneness does us good. It promotes creativity, concentration and learning, for example.
"You've got more time to critically examine yourself and other things, and therefore can develop new ideas," Lippke says. "It's also a kind of self-reflection."
If you're constantly around other people or follow the crowd, it's hard to realise what you're made of and what furthers you.
When you're alone, though, you can self-regulate and maybe even make improvements in your life. Carrying out a resolution to get more exercise, for instance, often founders due to everyday distractions.
"But self-regulation works better when you're alone, and you can do those back exercises you planned," Lippke says.
So why is it that some people don't like being alone?
"You've got to be able to see the positive," Lippke says, noting there are gregarious people who nevertheless like to be alone sometimes – as a form of social detoxification, so to speak, since the abundance of everyday stimuli can become overtaxing.
"Then it's good to deliberately be alone, without emails or video conferences."
Loneliness, on the other hand, is an early warning signal.
"There are phases in life when we feel lonely," Lippke says, the first time usually being when young people move out of their parents' home. But these are short periods that pass. "What's important is to take advantage of them as incentive for change."
So if you realise you're lonely, you can make use of it by taking action.
"You should make a point of seeking communication and company, whether via social media or in person doesn't matter," Lippke says.
When can it be said that a person has drifted into isolation?
"There's no concrete definition of social isolation," points out Schobin, who, like Lippke, says it happens only in extreme cases: when a person has no contacts and no positive relationships anymore, noting that it occurs mainly in the penal system.
Social isolation experienced by people who don't live behind bars is usually only partial. They may be cut off from their partner, children, friends or society at large, for example, but almost never from all groups simultaneously.
Whether partial isolation leads to loneliness or not depends on many factors – individual, situative and cultural.
"It can be said, however, that if you feel lonely, (the isolation) is already too much for you," says Schobin, because the feeling is a sign that something's wrong with your ties to your social environment. – dpa/Angelika Mayr