Loneliness is often seen as a sign of despair and lacking in social skills. But recent psychological research suggests that it can also be seen as a potential pathway to greater depth and self-reflection. For many modern people seeking lasting fulfillment, navigating, understanding and confronting our feelings of loneliness can facilitate greater understanding of ourselves and bring us closer to meaningful experiences, relationships and true happiness.
Throughout the ages, being alone has been looked at through different lenses. Before the twentieth century, philosophers believed that the quality of a person's life and capacity for moral action was determined not simply by their social environment, but by their capacity to reflect upon it. Many thinkers saw loneliness as an opportunity to focus on one's soul – a pathway to greater depth and insight. On the other hand, Renaissance philosopher Desiderius Erasmus wrote that “solitude passes quickly; having no other companion, we become our own and thereby approach closer to the divine.” A sense of loneliness was also seen to provide an opportunity for self-reflection and heightened awareness about our behavior and the needs of others.
In the modern age, we are living in an unprecedented era of connectedness. Technology has enabled us to instantly engage with friends, leave notes for family members, and stay in touch with distant colleagues. Yet even with this, we can still feel lonely – a sense of disconnectedness from the world around us, and a painful disconnect within ourselves.
The truth is that our feelings of social isolation can often have both positive and negative implications. Firstly, loneliness can bring suffering and anguish. Studies show that severe loneliness can lead to physical and mental decline, making us more vulnerable to health concerns such as heart disease, depression, and anxiety. It can also lead to feelings of worthlessness and sometimes rage against the world around us.
But there is also a silver lining to loneliness – if we are willing to come to terms with our feelings and use our social isolation as an opportunity for self-exploration. Exploring our loneliness can be difficult, so it is important to find ways to make it bearable. This could include making a conscious effort to connect with ourselves by recognizing our emotions and validating them, or through activities such as journaling and art, exercise, or engaging in meaningful conversation.
Exploring our own thoughts, feelings and desires through honest self-reflection can also be beneficial. We can learn things about ourselves we never realized before, gain insights into our needs and values, and gain a newfound appreciation for the depths and nuances of different relationships. In fact, the benefits of learning about ourselves through the lens of loneliness may carry forward far beyond our periods of physical isolation.
Being alone is not easy, but it can be necessary. Not only is it important to give ourselves permission to experience our feelings of loneliness without judgment, but it can also be an opportunity to come face to face with who we really are and what we really seek. In embracing our feelings of loneliness, we can gain a greater depth of self-awareness and become better equipped to find true connection and happiness.