Why Some People Don’t Feel Lonely


There was a point, midway through quarantine, where I started to wonder if I was made for it.

I’m used to alone time in abundance  I spent seven years living on my own. And I know firsthand that loneliness and being alone are two different things, and that the presence or absence of other people isn’t necessarily tied to the emotional state. Still, as the time in lockdown stretched on, I braced myself for the wave of loneliness to hit.

Strangely, it never did. I’m not saying I’ve been enjoying this time  I’d do some terrible things for a carefree dinner out right now but for the most part, I’ve been doing okay without in-person socializing. I’m bored. I’m anxious. But I’m not terribly lonely.

Some people, it turns out, really are less susceptible to loneliness while alone. Or, more specifically, some people have already been living the conclusion of a recent study: that spending time with other people isn’t the only way to feel a sense of belonging. And while the country may be inching toward reopening right now, the warnings of new spikes, second waves, and returns to lockdown mean all of us would benefit from getting to know the alternatives.

The study, published in the journal Self and Identity, found that so-called nontraditional social strategies such as playing with a pet, eating comfort foods, listening to music, watching TV, or even following celebrities on social media — can be legitimate sources of social satisfaction. The reason for this has as much to do with human migration as it does with our brains: “While socialization is a fundamental need, just like water and shelter, we no longer have the tight-knit communities that historically fostered it,” says social psychologist Elaine Paravati Harrigan, who led the study as a researcher at the University of Buffalo’s Social Self Lab. “As our society has evolved and changed, we have evolved the ways our needs get met.”

We’ve adapted to find connections where we can. Watching Friends can make you feel like you, too, are settling into the sofa at Central Perk. Cooking up your grandmother’s lasagna recipe can feel like a moment of bonding, even if you’re the only one in the kitchen. In fact, Paravati Harrigan and her co-authors found that people who turn to these nontraditional strategies aren’t any lonelier, less happy, or less fulfilled than those who rely on traditional social sources.

The same activities won’t have the same effect on everyone. One person’s Instagram deep dive on their favorite reality star might be another’s gaming session or time curled up with a book. The key is to find whatever works for you, both to keep you feeling socially fulfilled and to beat back feelings of loneliness that may have already taken hold. (Pavarati Harrigan notes that the strategies in the study have also been shown to blunt the sting of social rejection.)

Harrigan says it helps to think of your social needs with a fuel tank metaphor: The fuller the tank, the less lonely you’re likely to feel. When our options for filling it with normal socialization are limited, relying on alternative sources can help you make up some of the difference.

This is reassuring in the midst of social isolation, and it may also come in handy when alone time is in short supply once again.

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