A year into the pandemic, I’m increasingly thankful for having a very different sleep schedule than my boyfriend. I wake up around 6 or 7, and try to be in bed at 11. My partner goes to sleep at 2 a.m. and rejoins the world at 10. Our days are bookended by several hours when the other is asleep—and so we maintain some precious time to ourselves.
Before COVID-19, with busy social lives, jobs, and travel, we often had to intentionally carve out quality time together. Now, since we see almost no one else in-person and work from home in a small Brooklyn apartment, the health of our relationship depends instead on making sure we get adequate quality time apart.
We know that we are lucky to be bothered by each other’s presence. Loneliness has been a rising mental health issue during the pandemic: One survey from last year of over 1,000 people found that 65 percent felt increased feelings of loneliness. Another study found that young adults, age 22 to 29, have recently had higher levels of loneliness and that those already at risk of being lonely were even more at risk. In February, Japan’s Prime Minister added a minister of loneliness to his Cabinet to pay special attention to the problem; loneliness has consistently been shown to be bad for both physical and mental health.
Yet while many people are lonely, during a pandemic that confines us to our homes with our loved ones, people may alternatively (or simultaneously) be suffering from something called “aloneliness,” a state named by Robert Coplan, a psychologist at Carleton University in Canada, and his colleagues in 2019.
Aloneliness is the mirror image of loneliness, and it’s the feeling that my partner and I are trying to stave off when we pretend the other doesn’t exist for a few hours a day. If loneliness comes about when there’s a discrepancy between the amount of quality time you want to spend with other people and how much you actually get, being aloney is a mismatch between the amount of quality time you would like to spend all by yourself, and how much you’re actually able to do so.
Many of us have been feeling alonely, even without knowing there was a word for the sensation. Last summer, Kate Morgan wrote in Elemental about how being with your partner all the time can cause conflict: “If all your leisure time—really, all your time—is together time, you’ll probably start to feel disconnected from yourself,” relationship coach Veronica Monet told her. In April 2020, MIT Tech Review wrote about how the pandemic brought on a deluge of virtual events and activities, leaving little time for people to decompress by themselves. One law student in New York felt drained after “three long days of classes on Zoom, virtual extracurricular meetings, and nightly check-ins with friends and family…Soon, he stopped picking up when his friends rang. He just needed some time alone,” Abby Ohlheiser wrote.
Most of the work on being alone has focused only on what happens if we get too much solitude. “Spending time alone has a pretty bad rap,” Coplan said. “Historically, people have always affiliated solitude with loneliness, despair, and depression. This is a serious issue and not one that we should consider unimportant.”
But Coplan and his colleagues focus on aloneliness considers the flip side, and they’re finding that too little time alone can lead to similar feelings of stress, depression, or negative moods that loneliness can. It’s an area that’s become incredibly relevant for the enduring social limbo we’ve found ourselves in. “I have to say, it’s certainly become an interesting time to be someone who studies social isolation, loneliness, and solitude,” Coplan said.
People have been thrust into circumstances where they are alone all the time, and it makes them feel lonely. “But other people, I’m thinking particularly of young parents who are now working at home, doing remote learning with their children, suddenly just don’t get a second by themself,” Coplan said.
Humans need a sense of connection to others and meaningful social interactions. And yet, time alone can have beneficial effects too, from being better able to manage difficult emotions to exploring your creativity. Studies have found that teens who spent about 25 to 30 percent of their waking hours alone had lower depression scores, better grades, and higher behavioral ratings from teachers.
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“Many religious figures, philosophers, and psychologists have argued since forever that people occasionally or often need some time alone to feel some space and freedom to think about something important to them, do something creative or spiritual, connect with nature, or whatever other thing is difficult for them to do when they are surrounded by other people,” said Christopher Long, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Many writers have persistently extolled the benefits of being alone, craving it when they don’t have access to it. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone.”
Researchers have described this seeming contradiction as the “paradox of solitude”—solo time can both have positive effects, yet too much of it can negatively impact well-being.
“Most importantly, loneliness is an involuntary state.”
At the beginning of his career studying the development of shyness and social anxiety in children, Coplan and his colleagues spent time observing children play at recess, and noticing when children were off by themselves.
Some of those kids were shy, but others seemed to be just fine on their own; they preferred it. “They seemed quite content to be playing by themselves, and didn’t seem to be displaying the same kinds of signs of worry or anxiety or kind of uncomfortableness that a shy kid would typically demonstrate,” Coplan said.
They’ve now done studies in college students of varying adult ages, and teenagers, age 15 to 17, published in January of this year. In these older groups they’ve found people who enjoy time alone, and when they don’t get it, they experience aloneliness. They measure aloneliness using the Solitude and Aloneliness Scale that Coplan and his colleagues developed, which asks people to agree with statement like, “It would be nice if I could spend more time alone each day.”
Solitude is simply the state of being alone, but people can have wildly different experiences while in solitude. There are key differences between loneliness and solitude, said Virginia Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at Middlebury College. “Most importantly, loneliness is an involuntary state,” Thomas said.
Long agreed, and said he’s found in his research the main difference between a positive and negative solitary experience is a person’s degree of choice. People who had positive solitary experiences were choosing to be alone, and able to do what they wanted while they were alone.
“People who had a negative experience of solitude—and ended up feeling lonely, bored, or some other unpleasant feeling—often wanted to be with other people or couldn’t engage some activity that they wanted to do,” he said.
Motivation is another important factor, Thomas added. When people spend time alone for constructive purposes (like wanting to be creative or self-reflective), they have a better time with themselves, compared to people who seek out alone time because of social anxiety or perceptions of social rejection. “In solitude, you intentionally withdraw from the social world for specific purposes—perhaps to connect with yourself, or to recharge after an overstimulating day, or to work on an enjoyable project,” she said.
The amount of alone time each person needs is very individual, and at what point someone starts feeling alonely varies widely. “No one’s going to be able to say, ‘We recommend x number of time spent alone for everybody,’” Coplan said. “That’s not the way it works. Everybody has a different threshold for what meets their needs.”
While it’s an presumed character trait of introverts to want to be alone, Thomas said it’s not necessarily true of all introverts, and there are many extraverts who also value their solitude.
“Situational factors are important, no matter your personality,” she said. “For example, we all experience stress, and one clear benefit of solitude is its restorative effect.” No matter who you are, it seems that solitude can calm us down, especially when we’re stressed.
People who have more positive attitudes towards solitude, and want to spend more time alone, are more likely to feel alonely. This makes sense because if you like alone time, you’ll want more of it, and are at risk of having those needs unfulfilled.
What you do when you’re alone can also impact whether or not you feel alonely. In their recent study on teens, Coplan and his colleagues found that when alone time is dedicated to hobbies, reading for pleasure, watching TV or videos, video games, or time outdoors, it better satisfied aloneliness. If people were spending the same amount of time alone but the time was filled with chores or homework, they were still alonely. This means that quality alone time has to really be for and about you—not catching up on cleaning or doing taxes.
Coplan noted that loneliness, similarly, is not just about being isolated. People can feel lonely even when they’re surrounded by others because the quality of social interactions is what matters more. “We’ve had adolescents tell us they feel lonely at the dinner table with their families because they’re missing being with their friends,” Coplan said.
It’s also entirely possible to be alonely and lonely at the same time—meaning you’re generally dissatisfied with your social circumstances across the board. You could be missing out on meaningful social interactions and connections in a way that’s making you feel lonely, but still not satisfying your desire for quality solitude time.
Coplan said that they’ve started to collect data during the pandemic, and while they don’t have any final results yet, he is hypothesizing that they’ll find increasing levels of both aloneliness and loneliness.
Coplan thinks that just spreading awareness that aloneliness can be affecting you alongside loneliness will be beneficial. “It’s something that people are not really that mindful of,” he said. “One of the things that we found is people might be feeling stressed or irritable and they don’t know why.”
The solution for aloneliness is, as one might expect, to get some alone time. Coplan recognizes it’s not always so easy, especially right now. He encourages people to tell their partners or roommates that they could use some time alone, and to have conversations about why that request isn’t an indication that a relationship has gone sour or that you’re annoyed or upset with someone.
Coplan said it’s important to not take it personally when a loved one says they need more time alone—but that you’re granting them a psychologically rich gift, as psychologist Ester Buchholz called it, in her book The Call of Solitude.
“When listening to patients talk about their lovers, family, or friends, I am struck by their expressions of gratitude if they receive ‘time off’ to engage in their own pursuits,” she wrote. “Like prisoners who are granted parole before they deserve it, they feel that their freedom is a gracious gift. Therefore, they have a hard time ever suggesting the possibility of spending a relaxing day alone.”
If my feelings get a little bruised when my partner shuts the door for a few hours, I remember the bliss I experience when the need arises to sit in a quiet room by myself, with a cup of tea, a book, fuzzy socks, and no expectation of anyone bursting in.
“It’s something to at least be mindful of because it’s not something that most people would even think to realize,” Coplan said. “No one’s saying you need to go on a two-hour walk in the woods everyday…that’s good for some people, but we can’t all do that. So maybe it’s just a question of grabbing onto those micro moments, acknowledging that you need some of this time and giving yourself permission to have it.”
Coplan also suggested keeping a journal that keeps track of your time with others and your time alone, to see if it matches with what you want or need. Striking the right balance between time with other people and time by yourself is the way to avoid the repercussions of both loneliness and aloneliness.
“In my interviews with both young adults and middle-aged adults, the ones who had the most positive experiences of solitude told me they were able to relax into their alone time and enjoy it because they knew they could exit solitude at any time and find social connection when they wanted it,” Thomas said. “They could connect with their friends and family when they needed to, and they could connect with themselves in solitude when they needed that instead. They had the best of both worlds.”
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