Feeling Lonely? You're Not Alone

Solitude can be nourishing and nurturing. It offers space for reflection -- the chance to hear your own voice against a world of chatter.
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My husband is away on business for nearly a month. When I first heard about his plans, I huffed and puffed, unhappy he'd be away so long, but the trip didn't budge. I quickly relented and bolstered myself with the upshot: I would avoid the NHL playoffs and hunker down, without interruption, for hours and hours of writing -- just me and a cup of tea and my trusty Macbook. I would be productive and Zen. I would read and take bubble baths and make dinner dates with friends.

But the first week I was sick in bed. Why does that always seem to happen? Just when I need my husband to make me soup and bring it bedside, he ends up on the other side of the world, and I'm driving myself to the pharmacy for Nyquil and taking my own temperature.

In the second week -- finally out of the hazy fog that is sickness -- I stared the quiet emptiness of my apartment in the face. I expected serenity. Instead, I found loneliness.

My days of writing are sentences that begin with a morning kiss and end with my husband's arrival home for dinner. But what happens when writing days become writing nights, and the only difference is the food in the oven and the light in the sky? An uneasy longing, that's what, for the moment when my day of solitude turns into an evening of loving connection.

The emptiness I felt came from what psychologists call the feedback gap; the habitual pleasures of our days become expectations- - and when unmet, we're left disappointed, anxious or depressed. Yes, I was being a baby -- my husband would be gone for less than a month and I had friends and family and plenty of work to keep me company -- but that admission didn't make me feel any better. In an effort to be gentle and patient with myself, I assured that knot in my stomach that it was simply the break in my regular routine that invited the nagging feeling that something was missing. Surely I could create a satisfying routine on my own; I could fill my feedback gap.

Because alone is not synonymous with lonely. Solitude can be nourishing and nurturing. It offers space for reflection -- the chance to hear your own voice against a world of chatter. It is a grounded center. It is an opportunity for inner harmony and balance.

In fact, loneliness itself isn't an emotion, behavior science studies tell me. Rather, it is just the expression of problem emotions that come about when we perceive being alone negatively. We get bored, anxious, angry and depressed when we're alone, and we call the package of these feelings loneliness. Though we don't share the same set of physiological responses in our loneliness, we can share the simple recipe for its remedy: practicing positive solitude.

Despite the fact that over 32 million Americans live alone -- a cultural phenomenon popularized in Eric Klinenberg's recent book Going Solo -- few of us really spend quality time alone. So busy are our handy opposable thumbs in constant contact, we forget to get in touch with ourselves. When's the last time you dialed in your thoughts? Or made plans to hang out with yourself for a while? At even the slightest indication of a pause -- waiting in line at the grocery store, getting a manicure--my phone is out, and I'm scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, through tweets and status updates and news. There's no time for relaxed contemplation in such a distracted life.

It is the simple shift in our perception of alone time -- from empty to full -- that allows us to appreciate the peace and inspiration of our own company. We are most uniquely poised to fill our own needs, after all.

So as my writing hours stretch past sunset and I continue to long for the warmth of my husband's company, I am consciously working on my harmonious solitude. Even if I haven't totally given up tweeting at midnight.

Alexis is at work on her first book about pursuing an inspired life as a 20-something.

Connect with Alexis on Twitter: @AlexisSclamberg

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