The language we use to talk about loneliness (if we ever talk about it) is like scrambled eggs. We put all the vocabulary in a humungous frying pan, give it a sturdy whisk, and add ingredients according to our fantasy and imagination.
For instance, a friend recently told me, “I like being lonely.” But what he actually meant to say is, “I like spending time alone.”
It’s a crucial difference: Loneliness is a distressing feeling while aloneness is a neutral state. Confusing these two tiny words can cause dramatic consequences.
But before we dive deep into the difference between loneliness and being alone, we first need to understand why it matters so much.
Why the Language of Loneliness Matters
There are three reasons why we don’t just need to know but also understand and expand our vocabulary of loneliness.
Diagnosing the root cause of the problem
I’ve been struggling with obsessing over tiny, insignificant things. I never knew what to do until I found a word for this problem: Perfectionism.
Knowing about perfectionism has helped me, in turn, get to the root cause. Which is that I’m afraid to make mistakes and confuse big accomplishments with burnout. Ever since I became aware of this, I can label it. Look for advice. Work out strategies.
But all this first required knowing the vocabulary of my condition. Likewise, you can’t cope with loneliness if you don’t even know the right name for it.
Voicing our feelings
Imagine feeling angry all the time but never knowing how to talk about it. You’ll walk around like a hissing pressure cooker because all you can say and think is, “I’m so angry, I’m so angry, I’m so angry…” This will, eventually, hurt a lot of people, including yourself.
Having emotional vocabulary helps you make sense of what’s happening to you.
The power of lexicalizing
Lexicalizing is the linguist’s term for words that are shortcuts to complex constructs. If we didn’t have this superpower, we’d ramble on and on to get our point across.
Instead of needing to say, “that water thing falling from the sky in the form of droplets when clouds are saturated with atmospheric vapor,” you can simply use the word “rain.”
Lexicalizing doesn’t limit our perception of the world — it enriches it. One study found the more words we use for different colors, the faster and stronger our brain can respond when we see those colors. In other words, the way we speak affects the way we think.
And this is where it gets interesting:
We can use this ability to identify, clarify, and diagnose loneliness. The bigger our vocabulary about loneliness, the better we’ll be able to distinguish and sort out our feelings.
So let’s talk about some of the most important (and misunderstood) terms of loneliness. Including the difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
The Simplest Definition of Loneliness
I mentioned it earlier — it’s critical to understand that loneliness is a feeling. That means it’s highly subjective, and everyone will experience it under different circumstances.
In this sense, it’s actually wrong to say, “I am lonely.” This assumes loneliness is a genuine part of you — like your name or nationality. But it’s not. It’s a fleeting emotion that arises under particular circumstances. So we should actually say, “I feel lonely.”
Another aspect is that loneliness is the gap between expected and perceived social connections. This means the quantity of relationships rarely matters — it’s all about the quality.
But if we truly want to understand loneliness, we need to know what it’s not.
The opposite of loneliness
A poignant essay by Marina Keegan answers precisely that.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.”
I wholeheartedly agree with everything Marina expressed. Except for one thing: We do have a word for the opposite of loneliness. And that word is connection.
Connection with yourself.
Connection with the people that surround you.
Connection with the world around you.
Thus, the simplest definition of loneliness is this: Feeling disconnected.
This also answers why we can feel lonely in crowds, in our own company, or with our human existence. It’s because we lost the connection to ourselves, other people, and the big picture.
So how can we reconnect? Digging deeper into the difference between loneliness and aloneness gives us vital cues.
The Crucial Difference Between Lonely and Alone
Being alone is measurable, and everyone can easily evoke it. You can lock yourself in the bathroom, run into the wilderness, or go out on the street in the middle of the night. You’ll be alone.
You can even stretch this definition and be alone with other people. When you say, “I went to the movies alone,” you didn’t rent the entire cinema to watch the newest blockbuster (unless you‘re really into that kind of stuff). You actually mean to say that you went there without people you know.
And so, aloneness is simply when you’re without company. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s a neutral state.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is when you crave to be in better company — regardless of being alone or with other people. And I think we can all agree that this is a painful feeling.
So here’s the real problem: Many people know how to be alone. But they don’t know how to be alone without being lonely.
That’s because we believe we must do certain things in the company of others — going to the cinema, a restaurant, or a concert. And as a result, we often conclude that we feel lonely when, in reality, we’re just alone. We’ve equated loneliness with aloneness because our cultural ideal preaches we can only be happy when we’re with friends, lovers, or family.
And yes, it’s true we can’t spend our whole lives alone. We’re social animals. We need to belong. And we need others to regulate our experience of reality.
But it’s very well possible to be alone without feeling lonely. In fact, it’s necessary. To connect with others we must connect with ourselves.
How can we achieve this?
How to Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely
Let’s look at two more definitions to clarify this conundrum: solitude and isolation. You can imagine them like devil and angel sitting on the shoulders of aloneness. One is beneficial and recharging, while the other is harmful and draining.
Let’s zoom in on these concepts.
I like to think of solitude as positive aloneness without distractions. In other words, enjoying your own company, taking the time to reflect, and making sense of yourself and the world around you.
Now, how might this help with loneliness?
Again, a big part of feeling lonely is that we’re terrified of being alone and, thus, easily slip into an alienated state. I’ve often found my loneliness hits me the worst when I expect to be in good company but end up all alone. Or, even worse, when I’m with friends but don’t feel connected.
Solitude provides the space to ask a crucial question: Why?
Why do I feel disconnected from my friends? Why do I desperately need company right now? We can analyze the situation and learn lessons for the future.
The neat side effect of solitude is that we get to know ourselves. We gain emotional intelligence. This, in turn, helps us find deeper connections because we know what energizes us — and what drains us.
The easiest way I’ve found to tap into solitude is to consciously spend time alone. By going on solo adventures. Taking yourself on a date. Or going on a hike in nature. Your expectations for social connections will drop. And as a result, your chances of feeling lonely, too.
An extreme case of social isolation is solitary confinement: A prisoner is all alone in a cell and not allowed to experience any human contact.
There’s a reason why this is one of the worst punishments in the modern world. It’s poison for us because we’re hypersocial species. Loneliness is guaranteed to hit because we’re alone against our will and have no chance to make connections.
Luckily, most of us will never experience solitary confinement. But sometimes, life still puts us in positions of isolation. A pandemic hits. We move to a new city. Our circumstances unexpectedly change. These situations can be frustrating, but they’re out of our control. So we need to be patient and compassionate to ourselves.
However, we also tend to put ourselves in “arbitrary confinement.”
We decide, for whatever reason, that the world is a bad place, people are mad, and we don’t want anything to do with it.
I remember one situation where I was ghosted by someone I really cared about. But instead of moving on, I decided that everything was doomed. Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Leave me alone.
As a result, I became cynical and isolated myself further and further from other people. And so I became my own prisoner, sentenced to be lonely. I’ve never been in solitary confinement, but this must have been a vague taste.
We need to beware of these states of arbitrary isolation.
You don’t have to force yourself to be with people when you don’t feel like it. But my experience has been this: It’s most important to talk to someone when you least feel like it.
How to Use this Vocabulary for Deeper Connections
Let’s put everything we’ve learned together. This vocabulary allows you to identify loneliness, cope with it, and develop strategies for deeper connections. With yourself and with others.
- Loneliness: An enduring condition of emotional distress that occurs when the level of desired connections exceeds the level of perceived connections.
- The opposite of loneliness: The personal experience of human connection.
- Aloneness: The factual state of spending time without company, regardless of your emotions or social contacts.
- Solitude: The conscious experience of spending time free from other minds that allows you to reflect — and often, enjoy your own company.
- Social isolation: An objective lack of social contacts that’s maintained by physical, practical, or psychological barriers.
It’s soothing to be able to label something you’re struggling with. It also destigmatizes it. And it helps you dig out the root cause of the problem. That’s why you should know the difference between being lonely and alone.