It sounds, at first blush, like the antagonist of a dystopian sci-fi novel: "The Minister of Loneliness." But in 2018, then-current U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Member of Parliament Tracey Crouch to that very real position, tasking Crouch with overseeing efforts to assuage the widespread problem of loneliness in the country.1
In 2021, the Japanese government followed suit, creating its own Minister of Loneliness to respond to increasing despair in the wake of the pandemic.2 Similarly, earlier in 2022, New York state officials announced a program to pair lonely senior citizens with AI-powered robot companions.3
Why are governments around the world so concerned with citizens' social lives? Because the "loneliness epidemic" is a growing public health concern. In the U.S., for example, 36 percent of all Americans reported feeling "serious loneliness" in a 2020 Harvard study.4
Loneliness is a social crisis, and as with any social crisis, each of us as individuals can play a role in bringing about the positive cultural shifts we need to solve the problem. And perhaps the most important thing we can do — as paradoxical as it seems — is learn to appreciate and embrace the beauty of solitude.
Connected, But Invisible
Many of us equate "loneliness" with "being alone." But psychologists like Miriam Kirmayer stress that being by ourselves doesn't make us lonely. Rather, the negative feelings of loneliness are caused by a lack of genuine, fulfilling emotional connections with other people. As Kirmayer writes for The Guardian, "In reality, loneliness has less to do with being alone and much more to do with the experience of feeling unseen. It is the quality, not quantity, of our relationships that fulfills our need for connectedness.5
Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who studies loneliness, concurs: "Because loneliness is a state of mind, being physically alone is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition to experience loneliness. One can experience a lonely state of mind while being with people at work, at home or even in a marriage."6
Why do so many people feel lonely today? The exact root of the problem can vary from person to person, but researchers agree a couple of cultural trends make us more likely to feel lonely. The first potential culprit is social media, which replaces our smaller but more substantial social circles with a large number of shallow connections. In societies and age groups that use social media more often, loneliness levels do tend to be higher, suggesting a clear correlation.7
John Cacioppo, another loneliness researcher, believes America's culture of individualism and independence may also be to blame, at least here in the States. According to Cacioppo, "Our culture emphasizes going from childhood dependence to adult independence. What it means to be an adult in social species, however, is not to be independent of others but to be a member on whom others in the group can depend. I think some of our society's problems relate to that misconception."8
The Usefulness of Loneliness
Loneliness isn't an inherently negative thing — or, rather, its negativity serves a useful purpose. John Cacioppo likens the sensation of loneliness to that of physical pain. In the same way physical pain alerts us to physical wounds we must tend for our personal health, loneliness alerts us to social wounds we must tend for our society's health.9
The problem is that unabated loneliness can have dire effects. On a physical level, loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, leading to chronic conditions like high blood pressure10 and increasing the risk of premature death by 26 percent.11 Lonely individuals are also at a greater risk of developing depression, dementia, and other mental health disorders.12
What makes loneliness so pernicious is that it is self-perpetuating. Research shows that lonely people become more self-centered as a defense mechanism. Lacking social support, lonely people may decide they have to look out for their own needs above all others. But the more self-centered lonely people become, the harder it is for them to break out of their loneliness and make genuine connections with others. Thus, they become even more alienated.13
'The Glory of Being Alone'
What differentiates solitude from loneliness? Philosopher Paul Tillich may have said it best: "Our language has … created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone."15
Solitude, then, encompasses the pleasurable aspects of being alone — and as it turns out, there are many. For example, studies have shown that periods of solitude can help us improve creativity by freeing us from distractions.16 And solitude can help us better understand ourselves. When we have time to stop and think without outside influence, we can discover what is truly important to us in life. To quote Archbishop William Temple, "When you don't have to think of anything … where does your mind go? What gives you the most comfort to fantasize about? That's your God. Your religion is what you do with your solitude."17
Finding Community in Solitude
Searching for Your Solitude
Solitude is important to our personal and social health — and yet, few of us experience genuine solitude. In fact, many actively avoid it: In one 2014 study, most participants chose to shock themselves with electricity rather than sit alone for 15 minutes.21
Our aversion to being alone, even for brief periods, may be part of why we're so drawn to the low-quality connections of social media, which often make our loneliness worse. On the other hand, if we could appreciate the benefits of temporary solitude, we'd feel less alone overall.
When it comes to reframing our relationships with lonesomeness, the best way to start is to practice. Psychology professor Paul Salmon, for example, likens it to building muscle through exercise. Look for brief moments of solitude throughout the day, and over time, you'll build up your tolerance — and appreciation — for being by yourself.22 Even small bouts of solitude can have tremendous effects on us: University of Durham professor Thuy-vy Nguyen found that just 15 minutes of solitude a day can help us better regulate stressful emotions like anger.23
To make your solitude practice more enticing, you might want to create what literary theorist Joseph Campbell called a "bliss station": a dedicated place and/or time all to yourself. "This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be," Campbell wrote. "This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen."24
Writing about Campbell's bliss stations, artist and author Austin Kleon stresses the fact that stations can be times or places. Whether it's a recurring block in your schedule or a specific corner of your room, establishing a clearly defined bliss station can help you achieve — and appreciate — solitude. And when you've emerged from your bliss station, you might find yourself feeling even more connected to the wide world around you.25