Some people might consider being alone and being lonely to be the same thing, but I disagree. Sure, there are cross-overs, but they can also have distinct differences. I am very good at being alone. I am not at all good at being lonely. The biggest difference I see is the choice you have: a person can choose to be alone, but does not choose to be lonely.
When I bought my flat aged 22 I made the decision to live on my own, something which may seem unusual. Many others I knew at that age chose to live with friends, or at least flat share with people they had found on the internet. Sometimes a person can’t afford to live alone even if they wanted to, I understand that, but for me the decision was more about being able to do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted. And if the place got messy, I could only be mad at myself. I loved coming home from work in the evenings to a cosy warm flat, dancing like no-one was watching (because no-one was), singing in the shower, leaving the washing up till I could be bothered to do it and, on occasion, watching TV till 1am (luckily I had kicked the habit of late night quiz shows in university, my god those awful programmes were addictive).
Basically, I was more than happy to be alone. Oddly, perhaps, I have always enjoyed the company of me, myself and I. I can socialise with others when I choose to, not because I have to. I have always been good at saying no. I’m not anti-social, but I’ve never been the biggest people person. There always comes a time when I long for peace and quiet. On a night out (rare these days), there always comes a point where I visualise my bed and then want to leave.
Now that Olly lives with me I don’t get a lot of time to be alone, but this is fine because he’s my best friend. I can be completely myself around him (so yes, he’s seen plenty of crazy dance moves) and if I don’t want to talk, I don’t have to. Despite this, it’s still important to take some time and space from each other. It allows you to be immersed only in your own thoughts, without the contamination of anyone else’s for a little while. Always good for perspective and reflection. But when I don’t want to be alone any more, I can choose not to be.
Loneliness is a whole other ball game. You can be lonely when you are alone, but you can also be lonely in a room brimming with other people. You can be lonely sitting next to your best friend and not being able to say what you are dying to say. You can be lonely even if you have a hundred friends. Loneliness is consuming. It is an emptiness inside which longs to be filled. The absence of choice separates it from simply ‘being alone’.
At one of the law firms I used to work for, we held a coffee morning for members of the charity Contact the Elderly, which brings together elderly men and women who are missing companionship in their lives. After speaking to many of them, it became clear that they lived for these meetings. These meetings kept them going. They looked forward to them and were disappointed when they were over. Did this mean that they felt lonely the rest of the time? That they felt they had no-one to talk to? No-one to just keep them company? For a lot of them it did unfortunately mean this. But they were so grateful to have a place where that loneliness went away, even if it was just for a short while.
Everyone has experienced being alone at some point, and most people will have felt some sort of loneliness too. But the latter is a negative feeling. It is a feeling that something is missing, rather than a feeling of reflecting upon what is there. Loneliness can be a craving for interaction with other people, while being alone can be a desperate need to escape from others.
What do you think the differences are?