How to embrace loneliness 

18. oktober 2023 kl. 09:42 · 7 minutter å lese

A woman wearing a face mask

At some point, we all feel lonely in our lives.

It is commonly understood that loneliness is an unpleasant experience attributed to feeling dissatisfaction with social relationships and interactions. Loneliness tends to be a temporary state which may develop from certain situations, such as moving to a new neighbourhood or the first day at a new workplace.  Feeling isolated may be subjective; people may feel alone without actually being ‘alone.’ This may be associated with feeling that personal needs or desires and social relations are unmet, such as having a lack of closeness and loving relationships with others. 

Psychologist Moustakas (1961) distinguished loneliness into two experiences: 

  1. Loneliness anxiety- a negative experience, attributed to social alienation, feeling socially isolated or distanced from others. 
  2. Existential loneliness – a positive experience, as an inevitable part of the human experience. It can involve a period of self-reflection and self-growth.

Psychologist Weiss (1973) provided more focus on what Moustakas would call the ‘loneliness anxiety’ where he divides this state into emotional loneliness and social loneliness. According to Weiss’s explanation, emotional loneliness is a state caused by having no close, committed relationships. Social loneliness refers to not having a satisfying social sphere, which tends to be accompanied by feeling rejection and boredom. 

Peplau and Perlman’s discrepancy model of loneliness (1998)- illustrates how some people can feel lonely even though surrounded by others and how some people are alone for long periods of time without feeling lonely. The model suggests that if an individual feels that their social relationships are lacking in reliability, alliance and reassurance of worth (poor attachment in a relationship) they are more likely to experience loneliness. 

This discrepancy perspective suggests that loneliness develops from a discrepancy between social relationships and a person’s needs or desires, as well as pre-existing relationships that the person already has. Certain predisposing and triggering events can increase or decrease levels of social contact- contributing to experiencing loneliness. What also affects this process is people’s individual differences in cognitive processes

Three key cognitive factors can influence our subjective perception of experiences:

  • Causal attributions- our own explanations of why events/behaviours occur
  • Social comparison- evaluating and comparing oneself and life to others
  • Perceived control- our own belief about the extent of our own capability of exerting influence on the external environment and in situations. 


The stigma of loneliness with old age

Stereotypes of loneliness appear to be negative to those who are more solitary as well as the experience of being alone. Loneliness appears to be a significant stereotype associated with the elderly. A Finnish study (2011) found that current newspaper content and magazines depicted more negative attributions to loneliness. The media tended to link loneliness with lower status of older people in society, poor practices in elderly care, lack of purpose in life and neglect by relatives.

This may raise the question of how might media representations of old age and loneliness affect the people who view them? A study by Coudin and Alexopoulos (2010) found that older adults who read texts which negatively portrayed the elderly reported feeling lonelier than those who had read the positive or neutral passages. This shows that the experience of being negatively stereotyped can immediately lead a person to feel lonelier.

Findings have indicated that stereotype embodiment (developing certain self-stigma and stereotypes) subsequently lead to distressing experiences of loneliness. Sutin and colleagues’ (2015) study showed that perceptions of discrimination specifically based on age-predicted feelings of loneliness 5 years later. It is suggested that ageism leads to feelings of loneliness that may worsen over time. Shiovitz-Ezra and colleagues reinforce this viewpoint-that ageism is a key aspect within society that leads older people to negatively experience loneliness. It is argued that we are ‘living in a society that glorifies youth and dreads old age’- amongst many of us there is a fear of biological ageing, getting ill, cognitive deterioration and loss of independence. Prejudice and discrimination towards the elderly, being treated as a burden. 

Experimental studies (2009) indicated that priming (exposing) older adults to ageing stereotypes causes them to embody such stereotypes- highlighting how people carry out self-fulfilling prophecies, through believing the negative stereotypes existing in surrounding culture and society.   The study showed that priming older adults with negative stereotypes of poor physical functioning led to poorer motor performance. Meanwhile, priming participants with negative stereotypes of cognitive function led to reductions in memory performance (Levy and Leifheit-Limson, 2009). 

The English Longitudinal Health study by Pikhartova and colleagues (2016) highlighted that having negative expectations and stereotypes of old-age loneliness even while currently not feel lonely has the potential cause self-fulfilling prophecies, where a greater sense of loneliness is experienced in older age. 


How to embrace loneliness 

Considering today's’ current global pandemic, it is understandable that increasing numbers of people are feeling the negative effects of loneliness; especially with governmental lock-down and social distancing measures and having to self-isolate away from others. Many of us resort to staying socially connected online, as a means of communication and keeping up to date on other people’s lives and feeling more socially involved with others (even though it is remote and not necessarily in-person). 

Undoubtedly there is a negative sense of unease surrounding spending more time alone, especially with negative stereotypes of loneliness within society.  It may be helpful to try and rethink what 'being alone' means to us and see it more as a positive experience rather than an unsettling one. 


Here are some useful ways to help you rethink and improve the experience of spending time by yourself:

It is part of the human experience- Everyone will experience loneliness within their lifetime. It can be reassuring to remember that it is not just you who is going through this and it is a normal part of life. 

Reflective thinking- Being alone, does allow space for yourself and time to really invest into yourself.  Reflecting upon yourself, putting your life into a reasonable perspective, setting goals and gradually working towards them can bring a deeper sense of self and increase your own productivity. 

Solitude can be bliss- there is a difference between what we know as loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is something associated as a negative experience, where we yearn of social connectedness and deeper relationships which we might not have. Solitude is something positive, where we focus on ourselves and enjoy our own company. An opportunity to recharge- Solitude can be used as a time of relaxation and finding ways to help bring peace and calmness, through self-care practices such as yoga, meditation and discovering new things through music and creativity. 


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