The value of loneliness
March 28, 2006 7:07 PM   Subscribe

Does loneliness have any value?

For some reason, I've always had this idea that periods of loneliness are necessary and healthy parts of life. I don't know where I came up with that. If this makes any sense, I kind of see those periods of being lonely like trimming back a plant, at first it looks terrible and dead, but it is necessary for the plant to grow and become fuller. Is there any truth to that?

I guess I wonder this because I'm going through a lonely spell right now. I'm in my early 20's, transitioning to a new phase, in a new city alone, with tons of time to think. I'm in good mental health, and am making an effort to meet people, so I'm not just sitting around feeling sorry for myself. But periods of loneliness, I don't think, turn on and off so quickly. Anyways, this question isn't really about me other than my wondering whether this can be a somewhat healthy thing to go through, or should I just make a full-on effort to be happy all of the time. Any insight pertaining to loneliness and periods of loneliness would be appreciated too.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I've had similar bouts of loneliness on & off throughout my life, and most of them (including this last year) were very beneficial for my self-growth... Learn to enjoy them & thrive on them, and they'll serve you well.
posted by growabrain at 7:17 PM on March 28, 2006

I think that loneliness is like hunger and sleepiness and thirst; it's a way of letting you know that you need something you're not getting.

But it's "healthy" only in the sense that it's normal to feel that way sometimes; it isn't something that's actually good for you to go through, any more than there's any actual benefit to being thirsty without drinking any water to make the thirst go away.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:19 PM on March 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I find that I am most productive and/or creative when I'm either newly enamoured or miserably alone. In that sense, loneliness has some inspirational value.

(what growabrain said, more-or-less)
posted by Evstar at 7:19 PM on March 28, 2006

Attempting to be happy all of the time is probably one of the surest ways to prevent yourself from ever being happy.

Periods of loneliness, like almost everything else in life, is as good or as bad as you make it.
posted by oddman at 7:25 PM on March 28, 2006

There's a good line from an old Aztec Camera song: "they call us lonely when we're really just alone." In my experience, I've found that to be a distinction worth making -- that is, it's possible to be alone without being lonely (and, at the same time, it's possible to be lonely even with people in your life).
posted by scody at 7:29 PM on March 28, 2006

As far as I'm concerned it's a big part of being an introvert.

Probaby the majority of people in this world are extroverts with often tireless social lives, then there's introverts who are fine socialising, but simply don't need to be socialising all the time to 'get their kicks'.

The article I linked to above really helped me see some things in a new light, and if nothing else is a really interesting read.
posted by iamcrispy at 7:30 PM on March 28, 2006

when we think of being alone as bad, we call it loneliness. when we think it is good, we call it solitude.
posted by GleepGlop at 7:40 PM on March 28, 2006 [3 favorites]

Periods of loneliness can absolutely have great value. Learning how to be right with yourself, by yourself, makes being with others work a lot better in my experience.
posted by nanojath at 7:41 PM on March 28, 2006

What gleepglop said.

Solitude, introspection, self-sufficiency, independence, these are all good things.

Loneliness is not a good thing. Feeling lonely means that you'd really rather be spending time with other people.

I've never liked being alone - I always try to live with other people and I really can't handle being totally isolated for more than a few days before I crack. Maybe it would be good for me to go on some sort of introspective journey where I don't seek out the support of others, but that would be intentional.

Make some friends! Helping others is the best way to win new friends.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:48 PM on March 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I kind of see those periods of being lonely like trimming back a plant, at first it looks terrible and dead, but it is necessary for the plant to grow and become fuller. Is there any truth to that?
I think that's a damn good metaphor.

I live with my fiancée and I'm happy. But I still think about the year I spent living alone on Cape Cod, in a cottage on the beach without neighbors or roommates. I spent quite a few evenings just sitting quietly in my living room, sipping a cup of warm cider, looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean and watch the occasional freighter light crawl across the horizon. That was one of the happiest times in my life and I'm eminently grateful for it.
posted by cribcage at 7:50 PM on March 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Loneliness, for me, is always accompanied by a sense of elation. The radical sense of moral and aesthetic autonomy, heightened perception, keener critical awareness and authenticity all lend to a sense of privlege, not shortcoming. The highest moments of aesthetic and religious rapture have always presented themselves to me as intensely solitary experiences.

If this concords with your experience at all, you might find some "solitary company" (ah the paradox that is literature!) in the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (esp. Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Kafka and especially, especially, especially Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet.
posted by ori at 7:54 PM on March 28, 2006 [3 favorites]

Grab onto the loneliness while you can. If you go on to have a family, you'll miss these days with a vengeance.
posted by tkolar at 8:00 PM on March 28, 2006

Evolution has made us social animals.

Non-social animals don't ever feel lonely. Loneliness has obviously not been selected for in them.
posted by BaxterG4 at 8:31 PM on March 28, 2006

Grab onto the loneliness while you can. If you go on to have a family, you'll miss these days with a vengeance.

Of the two, companionship is better as a whole, but there's a lot to be said for solitude.
posted by Ryvar at 9:01 PM on March 28, 2006

There are so many good answers to this question that I don't need to add another.
posted by unSane at 9:06 PM on March 28, 2006

Grab onto the loneliness while you can. If you go on to have a family, you'll miss these days with a vengeance.

I think we need to make a distinction between loneliness and being alone. One can be alone and not be lonely. Likewise, one can be surrounded by people and be very lonely.
On preview, I see gleepglop/baby_balrog kinda covered this...

I'd say you're right about feelings of loneliness not changing quickly; it takes time. You're not in a crisis for feeling lonely, but I don't think it's good to wallow in it, seeing as it's technically not a "good" thing.

If it were me, I think I'd use that feeling of loneliness to motivate myself to get out and meet people, do (or find) more things I enjoy, etc. So, in that sense, I could definitely see loneliness as "necessary".
posted by Stauf at 9:31 PM on March 28, 2006

Someone dig up the link to that PBS show about the guy who went to Alaska and built his own cabin and filmed it himself.
posted by jerryg99 at 9:34 PM on March 28, 2006

I think I found it but I guess the point is that yes, loneliness can be a valuable experience. If it makes you sad though, that's a different story. If it empowers you to take on a challenge then it means nothing but a journey.
posted by jerryg99 at 9:40 PM on March 28, 2006

The one value I imagine is that you get very talented at masturbaiting.

Like a pro.
posted by SwingingJohnson1968 at 11:40 PM on March 28, 2006

A voice for the opposition--

Alone time for yourself is good for everyone, regardless of temperment. If you have any kind of extroverted tendencies at all, however, extended periods of loneliness are not so good, and tend to sap away your energy/creativity.

To muddy the semantic waters even futher: I'm guessing your definition of "loneliness" means, "not going out or on the phone all the time, but knowing this period will end soon," not filling your calandar with frentic social activity, and, as you say yourself, the opposite of "trying to be happy all the time." It's a much different animal to go through periods where one feels truly alone, like some fundamental connection with others has been ruptured. People who extoll the benefits of loneliness (as opposed to, "time spent not relying on others to meet my basic needs", which is all-around a good thing to experience now and then) sound to me like people who confuse "the blues" with severe clinical depression. (As in, "OMG, I'm so much more creative when I'm depressed!")
posted by availablelight at 3:56 AM on March 29, 2006

There's a good line from an old Aztec Camera song: "they call us lonely when we're really just alone." In my experience, I've found that to be a distinction worth making -- that is, it's possible to be alone without being lonely (and, at the same time, it's possible to be lonely even with people in your life).

Nail on the head. There's a huge distinction between loneliness and aloneness. I like to be alone, with time to think, to read, to be myself, whatever. I'm an introvert. But I hate being lonely.
posted by macdara at 4:02 AM on March 29, 2006

Solitude/loneliness is altruistic. Being lonely, and selflessly embracing your aloneness, is the number one way to fight overpopulation!
posted by xanthippe at 5:48 AM on March 29, 2006

I think that lots of people have to learn how to be alone, that is to be happy and content on their own. To be appreciate it is an enormous gift. Pema Chodron discusses this in this book (all of Chapter 9). I re-read this all the time-- how to appreciate the solitude.
posted by picklebird at 7:51 AM on March 29, 2006 [2 favorites]

"But the greatest gift in the power of loneliness to bestow is the realization that life does not consist either of wallowing in the past or of peering anxiously at the future, and it is appalling to to contemplate the great number of of often painful steps by which one arrives at a truth so old, so obvious, and so frequently expressed. It is good for one to appreciate that life is now. Whether it offers little or much, life is now- this day- this hour - and is probably the only experience of the kind one is to have. As a doctor said to the woman who complained that she did not like the night air: 'Madam, during certain hours of every twenty-four, night air is the only air there is.' Solitude performs the inestimable service of letting us discover that it is our lives we are at every moment passing through, and not some useless, ugly, interpolated interval between what has been and what is to come. Life does not know such intervals. they can have no separate identity for they are life itself, and to realize this makes what has seemed long and without value both precious and fleeting. The fleeting present may not be just what we dreamed it might be, but it has the advantage of being present, whereas our past is dead and our future may never be born."
----- Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico
posted by Sara Anne at 9:11 AM on March 29, 2006

What iamcrispy said.
Any value can be linked directly to where you stand on the extrovert-introvert spectrum.
posted by Rash at 10:14 AM on March 29, 2006

I just read this article in the Globe before clicking in here: Loneliness may be hazardous to your health

Like others have said upthread, I think there's a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone isn't hard, as it's often your own choice. Loneliness, however, can be an unpleasant by-product of that choice.
posted by digifox at 11:38 AM on March 29, 2006

No one else has really addressed it, so I'll try to jump in -- if you're in your early 20s in a new city, you've likely either finished school and got a job away from where school/home were or you've just moved away. I'll be turning 25 in a month or so and despite never really leaving my hometown I've had the same sort of situation - you're not near your old friends or they've left, you're lacking an immediate peer group or close roommates, and you have a lot of options. My suggestion is to try a lot of things, but above all, be open.

I know people who have completely failed at adjusting to a new place. They've tried hanging out with coworkers, going to handful of bars, and dating a little but seem to think that they're lonely in a way that only their family/old friends can solve. What you have to realize is that you're lonely because you miss either the close friendships or the history of shared experience with others. Understand that you're going to hang out with some people who aren't going to fulfill all your social needs -- you might feel lonely in the crowd sometimes. It might mean you need a different crowd, or even a couple groups of friends.

It really takes a while to hit an equilibrium. Only in the last six months can I really say that I've felt like I have something solid socially and I've been out of school almost three years. Don't panic, though -- I know people who have changed completely to fit a new set of friends, gone out enough to become marginal alcoholics, and gotten married way too quickly out of a fear of being alone. Just try some things and see what feels right, and don't be afraid to keep looking. Eventually you'll fall into a habit where you do feel comfortable and the periods of loneliness will subside.
posted by mikeh at 11:54 AM on March 29, 2006

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