By Jing Hui
Over the past few years, the idea of loneliness has received considerable attention for its negative impacts on physical and mental health. In August 2017, The Guardian reported that loneliness can cause higher risks of heart attacks and earlier deaths.
The concern over loneliness is justified. We fear being alone because it makes us appear disliked, out of place and unwanted. We crave companionship because it makes us feel understood and accepted.
But being alone is different from being lonely.
Solitude is objective and looks at the amount of social interaction a person has. On the other hand, loneliness is subjective and looks at how isolated a person feels. Therefore, it is possible for a person to feel lonely even when surrounded by people.
We should embrace being alone because we can develop skills that can help us lead a healthier life.
Being alone boosts productivity. As university students, we are expected to learn independently, which means that we have more on our plates as compared to students pre-university, who are given more guidance at school. Working alone helps us to focus and be less distracted by the people around us.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 that employees in open offices found it harder to concentrate on their work. They were not only distracted by auditory noise, but also “visual noise”, when movements around them were captured from the corner of their eyes.
So when it comes to working, being alone is a good way to achieve productivity.
That said, increasing productivity is not the most significant benefit of being alone.
An article by the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour found that one of the main benefits of solitude is the development of a distinct identity. The study showed that being alone allows one to be more in tune with one’s feelings and decisions, leading to better self-awareness and a stronger sense of personal identity.
Increased self-awareness will in turn lead to a clearer idea of one’s values and beliefs. As university students, we often have to make difficult decisions – such as whether to go on exchange, whether to take out loans or which modules to enrol in. Knowing what truly matters to us will help us make those decisions instead of just following the crowd.
Solitude also helps to forge better relationships, as compassion is developed by being alone.
A Cognitive Neuroscience study using neuroimaging in 2016 provided evidence that people who described themselves as lonely reacted twice as quickly to images, as compared to people who did not. This suggests that they are more attentive to their surroundings.
Psychology professor John T. Cacioppo, one of the study’s authors, said this indicates that people who interact less with others are “more attentive to the distress of others” because lonely people, who lack the security from being part of a group, evolve to be more observant.
This increased sensitivity to the environment and to others can help us to empathise and create better relationships.
Being alone might not always be the most pleasant thing. It is often stigmatised in society and can be misinterpreted as being anti-social or arrogant. It can lead to one being called unpleasant names like “loner” or “hermit”.
Nonetheless, we should still embrace being alone because its benefits can improve our lives. We do not have to be alone all the time, but we should strike a balance between solitude and socialising.
After all, in a world where we receive so much information about everything around us, not knowing ourselves would be a real tragedy.