Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely

If you’ve been following recent news in the mindfulness world, you may have heard about a recent study by David Creswell out of Carnegie Mellon University that showed the wonderful effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as a reduction on perceived loneliness in healthy older adults age 55-85.

Loneliness is something that most of us experience from time to time, caused and exacerbated by stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and trauma, but you may not have known how staggering the statistics truly are. A recent survey taken from the AARP showed more than 44 million people are lonely and longing to connect with another living, breathing human being.

There’s a difference between being alone and lonely. Pema Chodron, author of Taking the Leap, writes:

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or some-one to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle through meditation practice, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

Loneliness implies suffering, which means that it’s not just painful, there’s a way the mind is relating to that pain that is turning aloneness into loneliness.

Often times when we’re suffering with loneliness, our brain shifts to more ruminative cycles of the past and future that lend themselves to avoidance, which is implicitly about disconnection, leading to more loneliness.

If we hold the lonely feeling with mindfulness, we’re approaching the feeling, making a friendly kind of connection, which ultimately opens us up to the part of the brain associated with openness, empathy, flexible thinking and creativity. As Pema writes, “[it] completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”

The Now Effect of one of these moments may be a source of clarity that there are other avenues to facilitate connection with people that haven’t been explored because of some fear that was there. Maybe one of these is joining a meditation group, hiking group, or other creative groups that facilitate connection.

Loneliness is something that is shared by millions of people and it isn’t a sentence. In fact, it can be our greatest teacher and connection around the experience of how to be alone:

It’s wonderful that research is supporting mindfulness as a way to work with loneliness. But keep in mind that the participants in this research were part of a group that included people talking about and connecting with their experiences around mindfulness and loneliness. So I’m guessing it wasn’t all about the meditation, it was about the personal connections people made.

However, mindfulness facilitates the ability to move out of avoidance and into a space of awareness where the mind can be open enough to either explore what it’s like to be alone differently, be more creative with new social options and move through the fear of engaging in those social situations.

Remember, if you can name what’s happening, you can choose to face it with mindfulness and see more possibilities than you knew existed before.


This article was originally posted on Mindfulness & Psychotherapy with Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.