As a loneliness researcher, I am interested in the history and meaning of the word. Did you know there is no specific word that means the opposite of loneliness? This is intriguing in itself! Just to add to the mix, if you compare the word solitude with loneliness you will find definitions and synonyms that overlap. Yet loneliness is considered negative and solitude is seen as positive.
So what is loneliness and is it possible to reduce the negative feelings associated with it?
So what is loneliness?
The most common definition is ‘a perceived lack of social support’, or an alternative way of saying this is ‘the discrepancy between actual and preferred social relationships’. These definitions are specific to connecting with other people and define loneliness as not having the right quality or quantity of social support. Dictionary definitions focus on feelings of unhappiness because there are no friends or people around.
What is solitude?
Solitude has a more flexible definition. It is less emotive and is about being alone. This is usually considered a pleasant experience. It is often something that is chosen. It doesn’t evoke the same level of concern as the word loneliness. There is even a word to describe someone who leads and enjoys a solitary life: ‘solitudinarian’.
History of the two words
The word loneliness comes from the Latin word ‘solus’ meaning alone, which is where solitary comes from too. Words often have multiple meanings and loneliness is no exception. Furthermore, the word solitary was used in the English language before the word loneliness. In the 14th Century the word solitary was first recorded, and the word lonely in the 16th Century. Back then the word lonely was not the same as loneliness. It just meant the person is alone. The word (and maybe the feeling of) loneliness came in much later (circa 1800s) and only when the industrial revolution started to change the way we lived our lives.
But they mean different things today?
In modern times these words once again evolved, but are still intertwined. For instance, another way of saying loneliness is to be alone, yet the word alone is also used as an alternative way of defining solitude. The word solitude is used alongside loneliness to explain someone who is alone. What this means is both words are interchangeable and can mean the same thing. Yet loneliness is culturally seen as a negative experience and solitude a positive.
Additionally, some researcher’s think loneliness should mean more than a lack of social support. Think of the athletes who sail around the world on their own, often taking a full year where they see very few people. They may feel lonely sometimes but is it the type of lonely where they yearn for company? They may miss their loved ones but they have a purpose in doing what they do, and so can we really call them lonely and unhappy, and lacking social support?
Context and interpretation matters
If the word loneliness means many things and can be interchanged with the meaning of solitary, why do we always emphasise loneliness as entirely negative and unwanted? What if we thought about the context of the word loneliness, and like the word solitary defined it as positive as well as negative, depending on what the person in the situation feels?
For instance, take a look at the banner image to this post. Is the woman on the swing enjoying her solitude or is she feeling lonely? It’s a matter of perspective, namely her perspective! Only she can say whether she is having a positive or negative experience in that moment.
How do you want to define loneliness?
Some researchers suggest we need to teach people to be comfortable with being alone. They argue that we have forgotten how to enjoy being on our own. Others worry that the way the media keep emphasising how awful it is to be lonely may cause more people to feel lonely (which makes sense as words shape the way we think).
It is up to us to define the meaning of our experiences and what matters to us and not just judge our lives by what is said in the media or by someone else.
If you enjoy being alone, that’s normal! If you don’t need much company, that’s normal too!
Whichever way you define loneliness, whatever the circumstances remember that it is just as easy to label your aloneness as solitary. So don’t feel pressure to always be ‘on’ and sociable if that isn’t what you need. The meaning can change in each situation, so be kind to yourself and define it in a way that helps you do what you need and not what you think you should be doing!
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