The Difference Between Solitude And Loneliness

It's the quiet, hidden and sometimes embarrassing health issue that is slowly gaining more attention.

The United Kingdom recently appointed a minister for loneliness and the 2018 Australian federal budget committed $46 million to combat the issue.

Loneliness could be "Australia’s next public health epidemic", according to the Australian Psychological Society.

But what is loneliness? And how is it different from just enjoying your own company, as many of our younger generation -- who are just as happy to sit in bed all weekend watching Netflix as they are to be out clubbing -- do?

"Solitude and loneliness are different. It's about the desire to be with people, or not," said Dr Michelle Lim.

Lim, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University leads the uni's Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory. She is also is the chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, a scientific committee that advises the government on how to address the issue.

"I'm introverted and I love my own time, but loneliness is about thinking your friendships or relationships aren't quite what they should be, or are lacking in quality or quantity," Lim told ten daily.

"You don't have to be by yourself or in a rural space to be lonely. It’s more a concept of social isolation. Some of the loneliest groups are embedded within strong social environments, like schooling and families."

According to Lim's research, loneliness is:

A negative feeling that arises when someone’s social needs are unmet by their current social relationships.

"So people can feel alone, even if they’re surrounded by others, if they’re not getting the right kind of company and support," she wrote.

Why?

Lim said it was difficult to settle on a definition or cause of loneliness. Some people live alone, have small friendship or family groups, and are very happy -- others have strong friendships or romantic relationships, large friend and family groups, and still feel desperately alone. Experts did draw a distinction between 'transient' or occasional loneliness, and chronic or long-term loneliness.

"Transient can mean a partner goes away on holiday, but some people feel chronically lonely all the time, even when surrounded by people. Some people have lots of great friends but are single and feel lonely because they don't have an intimate partner."

"And some people just don't give a toss either way," she added with a laugh.

Lim said loneliness can stem from a number of social issues, from family breakdown or death of a loved one, to social exclusion at school, or feeling nervous around new people. She also said changing lifestyles, such as people living in small apartments and spending long hours commuting to and from work instead of spending time with friends, can be factors.

But loneliness is more than just feeling like you want a friend to hang out with, or being bored of the single life. Lim said repeated studies have shown how the problem can snowball into other drastic health issues.

"We do know if you have a sense of isolation, you have a 26 percent higher chance of dying earlier," she said. In a piece for Swinburne's website in May, Lim wrote "this is greater than the risk for obesity."

"It could be that you're not going out and exercising as much, or that it stresses your system because you're feeling like nobody has your back," Lim told ten daily

"It is more stressful on your physiology, leads to poor cardiovascular health, poor general health, even the way we manage our blood pressure, and a range of physical health outcomes."

Loneliness is also an "antecedent" to poorer mental health as well, Lim said, and is linked to depression and a range of other conditions.

Treatment

A cure to loneliness? The research is still out. Lim said studies were ongoing as to whether social media played a role in either exacerbating or quelling loneliness, but that since there were a range of people who experienced the issue and a range of reasons why, there wasn't a hard and fast way of fixing it.

"Simply telling a lonely person to make a friend is overwhelming, but maybe they could learn something about an acquaintance. They might know their barista’s name, but not anything about them, so start there. Small talk can lead to more meaningful relationships."

It can be hard to make new friends, but not impossible (Getty Images)

There is also a role to play for people who don't feel lonely.

"It's not just lonely people who have to pay attention, but other people need to recognise if friends are reaching out. If someone is asking to see you, and you're saying you're too busy to catch up, the effort is not reciprocal and can be bad," Lim said.

"A lonely person is making the effort, but it's hard. It's important for people to respond."