The Hard Facts: Being Alone Is Different Than Feeling Alone

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“The majority of lonely people (62.5 percent) were married or living with others — an indication that feeling lonely and being alone are not the same. ‘It’s not the quantity but the quality of your relationships that matters,’ said Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician who led the study. ‘You can’t tell who may be feeling lonely. It’s not just a little old lady living all alone.’” (“A Longer Life Is Lived With Company,” New York Times, 9/11/2012)

The study mentioned above found what anyone who’s ever read this blog already knows: Make friends, live longer. But the interesting finding, IMHO (that’s webspeak, I just learned, for In My Humble Opinion. Aren’t I hip?), is the note that the people who qualify as lonely aren’t necessarily the ones in isolation.

Intuitively, we know this. Maybe the loneliest you’ve felt was at a party full of people. Or you were alone at the movie theaters, enjoying Les Miz, and felt totally content. Personally, one of my loneliest times was when I realized I was short on local friends. This, even though I was newly married, had family less than a mile away, and went to an office full of ladies every day. Loneliness isn’t about how isolated you are, it’s how isolated you feel. It’s about self-perception. After all, plenty of people who find themselves in the exact opposite situation as I was in–surrounded by friends but lacking a romantic partner–feel lonely, too.

According to Perissinotto, the necessary next phase of research is to find out why people are lonely. A pretty valuable first step given that apparently 20 percent of the population is chronically lonely. 20 percent! That’s nutters.

Tell me: Have you ever felt lonely in a situation where you were anything but alone? Was it hard to talk about? Personally, I hated saying I was lonely, even when I was, because I felt like I sounded ridiculous. “I just got married and am constantly surrounded by people… I’m so lonely!” It sounds like melodrama, even if it’s real. Have you been there?

43 Comments

Filed under The Search

43 responses to “The Hard Facts: Being Alone Is Different Than Feeling Alone

  1. Janelle

    I always thought it was, “In My Honest Opinion”. But I like humble better!

    The lonely-at-a-party/gathering is something I have felt before. It’s kind of nasty feeling! I’m a bit shy and not great at starting a conversation so I have done the dorky look-at-my-phone thing; wow is that loner thing to do!

    Alas, I’m getting better and do not have many lonely feeling moments anymore. Other than that, I rarely feel lonely. I thoroughly enjoy being alone because it is a very rare thing for me with a job, two kids, and a hubby.

  2. Today I learned what ICYDK means (in case you didn’t know)…how cool is that? LOL
    I’ve almost never felt lonely when I’ve been alone, but have felt lonely often when at social events. I actually think this blog will prove that fact to be true.
    Firstly, it’s a matter of choice. When you are going to the theater or a movie alone, it’s usually something you want to do and don’t mind doing it alone. My husband doesn’t love off broadway, so I often get a ticket and go alone. I love it!
    At parties or social events, I usually become “the most helpful guest” and serve or work in the kitchen so as not to feel like a piece of furniture. It’s also a good way to meet people. I even do this when I don’t know the host. Bold, but true.
    I can’t wait to read what others write.
    Being married DOES NOT SOLVE BEING LONELY.

    • amommys2cents

      “Being married DOES NOT SOLVE BEING LONELY.”
      I wish so badly that more women realized this!

      • Very true, but someone who is single will never understand this concept!

        • Elena

          of course being single, I understand the concept. Doesn’t mean I feel lonely sometimes, being single, and KNOW (because guess what, I’ve been in relationships before) that I wouldn’t feel lonley right now, if I had a partner. It doesn’t mean either that I don’t know it can happen that one feels lonely being in a relationship. But it’s not what I wish on anyone, so obviously I don’t wish it for myself, so… back to start. It’s idiotic to assume that singles don’t have any kind of relationship experiences and don’t know about them, thus dividing the world into two categories of people.

  3. How thoroughly refreshing to find someone who puts it’s so succinctly. Have definitely felt a whole array of different types of lonliness over the years, and being new to blogging, think your post is wonderfully honest and really wish something like this had existed in my world years ago!
    Great read :)

  4. I live alone, eat alone and sleep alone, and I’m fine with all that–pretty much never lonely when I’m by myself. But I hate shopping alone, going to movies alone, and eating out alone (basically, being alone in a crowd). If I had a few good friends to do things and go places with regularly who were not always juggling their calendars or phones, I would never be lonely. Everyone else is always so busy. I am *never* too busy to see a friend.

    Also, some of the loneliest people I know are married women. I’d never trade my life for theirs. Being alone is far better than wishing you were.

    • Monica

      I agree that when at home alone, eating alone etc, I don’t feel lonely. Take now for instance, just eaten dinner sitting in my flat on my own and I’m fine. It’s when I’m in a mass of people like at a wedding or what stands out in my memory is being in a busy hostel in Japan and I suddenly felt so far from home and so alone that I near enough cried myself to sleep. And seriously, I’m not often in that bad a state.

  5. I never feel more lonely than with a crowd of people who are friends with each other- but not with me. Being shy in high school, this was especially hard for me when I had to move to a new city/school in the middle of my junior year. My Aunt and Uncle wanted me to hurry up and make friends (they meant well), so they sent me off to the school dances (alone), where I watched groups of friends hanging out and felt ever more so alone.

  6. Bob

    I grew up lonely. I was that wee little kid in school who everyone always picked on. After I graduated I went to college hoping things would change. I’m a very social person but I find it difficult to relate to my peers. Now I’m a 24 year old man and I still find most people my age very petty, childish or immature. I used to think “adult” was this anomalous mass where everyone of all ages mingled but alas I was wrong.

    So I know very well what it is like to be surrounded by people but still feel like I’m all alone. I’m great company, people tell me I’m a good storyteller but still I cannot relate to most crowds. On weekends the people I associate with at school would pair off, go do something together. They’d come up and ask people around me if they want to go hang out yet somehow I’m invisible. Suddenly they seem to have forgotten about all that time we spent together and gotten to know each other well while I helped them pass a an assignment, project or course or even worked with as part of a team. How do you go from knowing someone one day to acting like nothing ever happened the next?

    Perhaps that is why I find it so fascinating to watch people. How they interact, fib, laugh at jokes they don’t find funny.

    I have 8 very close friends, 5 of them are from my high school and 3 of them are my classmates since kindergarten. In the 6 years since I’ve graduated from high school I’ve only managed to make 3 new close friends, both much older than me.

    Here’s where it gets interesting. The closest one lives five thousand miles away. Instant messengers have made things easier,Since they all live in different time zones, someone is always online. I’m never alone, well sort of. I’m don’t feel that lonely any more. We may not even say anything to each other but the fact that that little green light is on, is like a lifeline, a beacon, a lighthouse.

    I think for now I’m good. But everyone’s finished school, getting jobs, having babies or taking care of their new ones. Soon they’ll have less and less time to be online and ultimately less and less time to talk. Hopefully my course load would get heavier and I wouldn’t notice it very much. Maybe I’ll catch up on my reading.

    • I understand, in my childhood people told me I make friends easily, but overtime I noticed the negative aspects of having friends such as gossiping, harsh criticism, being a tad condesending. Now I have chosen to stay away from people but I have found that my ability to speak to people well has by default decreased, but also my “needing to socialize” human instinct has lead me to say or do awkward things to feed the need to socialize. If you have any advice for me that would be great.

  7. Bob

    There’s a nice little poem called “How to be Alone” by a Canadian poet by the name Tanya Davis

    She puts it rather nicely.

    If the author of this blog would indulge me I’m going to post it here.

  8. Christina

    I live alone and I have no problem going to movies, shopping or eating out alone. When I have felt lonely is when I have been in social situations where there is many people – then I feel like a fish out of water.

  9. Suzannah

    I think true loneliness is felt when we feel either dismissed, unsupported, misunderstood or neglected…usually these are emotions in response to other people..I feel most at ease alone, and I am a fairly extroverted personality..But being in agroup I become much more self- critical..

  10. Do you know I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonely!And I do almost everything by myself!
    I always assumed it was due to being an only child: I’m very accustomed to spending time on my own entertaining myself. I’m also a very happy, fun person. (People have described me that way…not tooting my own horn.)
    I’ve been divorced since 1999 and never even been on a date since then…not due to avoidance, just no one’s asked me out and I never went looking. In retrospect I believe its because I’m happiest being single and don’t feel lonely. :)
    Great post.

  11. tunie

    Whenever I am lonely I try to remember to either meditate, which is a form of reaching out and very self-soothing; or to go for a swim in the ocean, which always helps though I don’t know why.

  12. Val

    I’m exactly there right now. Married for several years, we moved to a new city 2 years ago. I have lots of great friends, and have never before had trouble finding people I can connect with. I knew it would take some time to make friends, but now that it’s been two freakin’ years I feel like a desperate loser! And then ridiculous for feeling that way. Thanks for your book. I’m four chapters in and feeling a little more normal. And like we’d totally be BFFs if only I lived in Chicago. Starting my own friend search now…

  13. Leanne

    I am happily married and have lots of acquaintance friends and a few closer friends but not really any besties anymore (besides my husband). Most of the time I am perfectly content, but every now and then, probably 3-4 times a year, I get hit with these crippling bouts loneliness that I can’t understand or control. It basically feels like no one quite “gets” me, and I get incredibly sad. It is really hard to explain to people who care about you how lonely you feel–it feels almost like you are insulting them (and they definitely could be insulted because it is so absurd and melodramatic and seemingly unfounded). But that is how I feel sometimes. It hurts so much for a while, and then eventually I get over it and I am fine again. Happy, even. Such a weird thing, loneliness. You can feel it even when surrounded by awesome people. WTF?

  14. Reblogged this on Bohemian Wildebeest is: and commented:
    I know the feeling pretty well… Possibly and perhaps even more so when surrounded by a lot of {acquaintances,friends,relatives} who simply can’t understand what you’re going through. It’s a very nasty feeling indeed and quite hard to shake off of you, but you can! ;-) How!? <- Perhaps this is material for a follow up post!?

  15. I don’t think there is anything worse than feeling alone in a crowded room. This includes in friendships, relationships, marriages and families. I think when you really are alone – solo, in solitude, single – it’s understandable why you may feel lonely. But there is also the hope that you can or will find that person who just gets you. We assume that when in a group or with someone else that some primal need for companionship is being already being met. It’s a great disappointment to realize those that are supposed to resolve that lonely feeling just can’t.

  16. The lonliest I have ever been was when I was in a relationship that wasn’t right. I’m convinced its better to be single and alone then with someone that’s wrong and lonely.

  17. Rarely. I’m pretty talkative (and dare I say friendly?), so even when I’m at a boring party where I don’t know most of the people, I will try and make at least one new friend-even if they’re only a friend for that night.

  18. Hey Rachel! I just wanted to tell you that I’m about 3/4 the way finished with your book and have found it so inspiring. I love the way that you were able to weave actual fact (regarding relationships) in with your journey to finding a BFF. Your voice shines throughout the book and I felt like I was listening to one of my close friends telling me a story. The book has made me reevaluate some of my friendships and encouraged me to step out and pursue deeper relationships with some of the women I’m not as close to. I love the idea of two monologues vs. a dialogue between friends – I discussed this thought with my husband last night and we talked about it until we fell asleep :) I look forward to reading more of your great writing in the future. Keep it up – it’s definitely a gift :)

  19. Thank you for validating us singles out there who totally gush over Les Miz, and feel somehow more together being apart from those who isolated us from ourselves. :D

    Pink.

  20. Dee

    SOOOOOOO true!! being lonely has nothing to do with being surrounded! Im in a long distant marriage, a stay at home mom to a 1 yr old baby and a 2 yr old dog…. my days are a chaos but my nights are the loneliest… iv tried Jane Austen to provide me with company but usually end up watching re runs of Greys Anatomy to fill my nights!

  21. daisygirl12

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Love this post by MWF Seeking BFF, it’s soo true!

  22. dorkista

    I pretty much feel lonely all of the time. When I’m by myself, I wish I had good friends and/or a boyfriend. When I’m out with acquaintances, I feel like I’m missing out on so much (therefore, lonely) because I don’t have stories about good friends and/or boyfriends. Basically, it’s because I don’t have any close relationships. And having multiple chronic illnesses just adds a whole other layer of loneliness.

  23. Definitely true! It is all in the state of mind and how you perceive your situation. Love the blog…thanks for writing!

  24. Being lonely in a marriage is far from just a female issue. This is a great post, so very true, and for me loneliness comes and goes, doesn’t even last long, so I find it difficult to understand how social scientists define it as some kind of a more rigid state.

    Is like asking someone if they are happy. It’s not a fair question, and pretty much anyone who thinks about it gets confused by it, as the answer is sometimes ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’.

  25. Michelle

    Loneliness chronically plagues me. I am likeable and fun but bc I hv moved 4 times in 9 years, I am short on friends. My last location was fantastic. There was an expat group who were all is the same boat-we connected quickly and I had a blast. For the first time in years before that. Then we moved again and all I can do is FB them and see all the fun they have. Its so lonely meeting people and telling my story again and again. Its hard to insert myself in someones life-someone who has friends already and who perhaps has not seen more of the world like I hv. I am glad to hv found your blog. Loneliness is a bitch- I am married and hv three children and I feel lonely still.

  26. My husband is home a lot so I don’t feel lonely. And because he is awesome to be around I don’t feel much need for other friends. But I do get really grouchy and I think it would help if I hung out with my friends more and called more often. Maybe the grouchiness IS loneliness? After the fun and reassureance from friends I do feel happier. Hmmm.

  27. Reblogged this on dreezy2012's Blog and commented:
    I love this :: It’s not about how isolated you are, it’s about how isolated you feel = FACT :D

  28. naknihomma

    Maybe it has to do with being either proactive or reactive. When you intentionally venture out alone you don’t feel lonely. It is only if you’re in a situation/event/party with people you don’t know and are abandoned by the one(s) you do know that you feel lonely. IMHO ;)

  29. Elena

    I can handle the being single and not making alone equal lonely…most of the time. I can truly understand stay-at-home-mums to feel lonely – I would never want to be one. Nevertheless, I’m childless-not-by-choice and the moments I feel most lonely and excluded is in a group of women my age who will most likely all be mothers and talk mostly about their children – the family I don’t have and am yearning for, but which will most likely never become a reality.

  30. L

    I feel lonely in a relationship sometimes. I find I like sharing and communicating and when the other person doesn’t I’m left alone in my own head and with my own thoughts. For some reason I can bare it better when I am single, but it’s harder to deal with in a relationship.

  31. Miguel

    I’m married and even when i’m with my wife, síde by síde, I feel alone. I’d feel less lonely in my car on my own. The way your companions make you feel changes you way you feel about yourself and how befriended you are. In a bad relationship your feelings of isolation can be increased, resulting in loneliness.

  32. Anonymous

    It is so hard to always expect something from people, really, what do we expect from the outside world? if we dont expect anything , would we still feel that lonely?

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