BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 02:27 GMT, Wednesday, 26 May 2010 03:27 UK

What's the difference between being lonely and a loner?

A woman alone

The Magazine answers...

Just under half of us have felt depressed because we have felt alone, says a report. But not everyone who is alone is sad about it, so what is the difference between being lonely and being a loner?

Loneliness - most people have or will experience it at some time in their life, according to a new report published by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF).

Young or old, male or female, rich or poor, it doesn't matter - loneliness is indiscriminate.

One contributing factor included in the Lonely Society report is the rising proportion of people living alone. The figure doubled between 1972 and 2008, going from 6% of the population to 12%, according to government figures. But not everyone who is alone is lonely, so what's the difference?

Loneliness is not about being physically alone
It's about each individual's evaluation of isolation
A loner gets satisfaction from being alone, someone who is lonely doesn't

Loneliness is not about being physically alone, it's about a person's individual experience of isolation and how they evaluate it, says the MHF. A loner gets pleasure and satisfaction from solitude, a lonely person doesn't.

While human beings are sociable animals by nature, personalities vary and at the opposite ends of the spectrum are extroverts and introverts.

"For an extrovert it is all about seeking stimulation from other people but an introvert's replenishment comes from solitude," says psychologist Ros Taylor.

"A loner can be perfectly content with their own company, while being alone will make another person utterly miserable."


Professor Jenny de Jong-Gierveld defines loneliness as an "unpleasant or inadmissible" lack of certain relationships in your life. Essentially, you can be surrounded by friends but still feel lonely because you aren't emotionally intimate with any of them.

If you don't feel the same loss from not having close relationships it's not necessarily a problem. In fact, some are in favour of being a loner. The renowned psychologist Anthony Storr argued that solitude is necessary for mental health and creativity.

Crucially, loner or lonely, problems start when both become extreme.

Most of us experience loneliness at some time, but what makes it harmful is when "it settles in long enough to create a persistent, self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations and behaviours", says American psychologist John Cacioppo.

Problems start for a loner when they isolate themselves too much, says Ms Taylor.

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"Humans need a certain level of interaction because we are basically sociable animals," she says. "If you remove yourself too much from others you lose communication and social skills and that's when problems start.

"You can't go through life not interacting with anyone, you have to talk and deal with a certain amount of people to function in everyday life. You need to know how to do this appropriately and successfully."

So while it is just as natural to enjoy solitude as it is to feel lonely, like many other things in life it's is all about moderation.

Below is a selection of your comments

I consider myself a bit of a loner, even though I love my friends and my family. But they are always asking me why I'm always going on long holidays alone and how crazy I am for even enjoying this (for example I recently went on a round the world trip for 8 months on my own, or have hiked trails for 2 weeks without seeing a single human being). And I honestly don't know the answer. The best explanation I can offer is that sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of humanity around me and I need time to be on my own, just me with my thoughts and nature. There is nothing quite like being alone on the top of a mountain, or deep into a forest, or a remote beach. It's an amazing feeling that leaves me feeling mentally rested, relaxed and content.
Matias, London

By the articles definition i'm a loner and can say that a loner's life is a double-edged sword. Yes, satisfaction is gained in solitude but that solitude is also a disease that leads to social awkwardness, even distain. Yet, increasing interaction only develops social skills, not increased comfort. I recognize the need for constant interaction especially in my public work, but with that the discomfort only grows. Its a classic catch-22 and a painful one as well.
Charles, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

This article really struck a chord with me. Went through some hard times in my teens, what with grief through death of my grand-father, and family money worries at home, due to recession of the early 90's. Went through a period of self-imposed isolation, people who made fun of me calling me "loner"...using your definition in the article, I got absolutely no satisfaction from being a "loner", I was isolated because I simply didnt feel worth the time and attention of others, and couldnt articulate my feelings of grief
Carl, Reading, UK

I live alone which doesn't make me lonely. I do exactly what I want to do without compromising with anyone. When I want to socialise, I socialise. I enjoy my own company and I do not need the presence of another human being to be content. Loneliness is a state of mind and it's possible to be lonely even in the busiest city street where nobody cares. Just enjoy the life you have. In the scheme of things it is a very brief span in time.
Brian Faulkner, Bridgwater UK

I think this is where social website came in to fill the gap for the loner and the lonely. This can be a good thing and also a bad thing. In my own opinion, I see the social website as a bad thing because people may end up with spending too much time in front of computer and not going out to socialize with the "real" people around them.
Steve, Sarawak, Malaysia

I like the solitude. I can't stand being around people sometimes because that would mean having a conversation with them to remove the uneasy silence teeming around you. Being a loner gives you enough time to enjoy the calmness and peacefulness within yourself. I think that being a loner is a choice. I doubt people chose to be lonely.
Ndirangu, Nairobi

The problem in this country is that if you have no great love to be social, you are classed as a "Loner" and thus, a weirdo, rapist, paedophile and more, just for not wanting to spend your time sorting out other peoples sad little lives.
John, London, UK

In one of the worlds most populous countries it is hard to find a place to be truly alone but when I find it I absolutely revel in it. his article helped me put my finger on something that I've thought about for a while. My family and friends are actually the ones that make me feel bad about being alone, while it is something that I really enjoy most of the time. It is something that they cannot possibly see the way I see it for some reason. My previous and present partners have also never understood why I sometimes just want to be by myself. Alone-ness (not loneliness) is for me just crucial to happiness.
Paul, Shenzhen, China

Living in a crowded noisy city like Cairo, it is hard to be a loner, though it is easy to feel lonely. With children living with their parents till they get married, and social restrictions on personal freedom, one finds it difficult to find solitude.
Joy, Cairo, Egypt

This article has been emailed to all my friends and family! I work all day and look forwards to the evenings and weekends by myself, relaxing, reading, catching up with dvds, and just enjoying some 'me time'. Of course I will meet up with friends occasionally, maybe every couple of weeks, and I also chat with friends and family online or on the phone nearly every day. But at the end of the day I like being on my own and doing what I want to do. Why is that so hard for some people to understand. They think I am putting on a brave face but am really lonely, however that is really not the case. If I want company, I will let them know!
Clare, Bexhill

I live with a family, work in a school and am often surrounded by people. I get lonely because I don't know anyone who thinks and feels about things in the same manner that I do. Its this lack of someone to bounce your ideas and enthusiasms off that makes life lonely sometimes.
ian, warrington

Being an only child I love being on my own. Most of my hobbies e.g. fishing can be enjoyed just as much on your own as with other people. However I like nothing more than a good night out with my friends; a nice meal and conversation does the soul good! I think the important thing is to make sure you get the right balance. Also you need to know yourself whether you like your own company or not.
Sam, Worcester

I'm a mid-aged loner at 67 and I love being on my own. I dread the day that frailty or breaking a limb forces me to depend on another.
Peter, Brisbane, Australia

I live alone. I am afraid of dying alone and not being found for many days.
Hyder Ali Pirwany, Okehampton, Devon, England

I'm a loner who works in the public sector, pretending everyday to be an extrovert. It is draining, and I think really limits my desire to be around my friends- the people I genuinely like- in my free time. I want to be social, but I also want time to relax. I have had personal relationships which made me very happy, as well. However, the older I get, the better I am at being single. Barring a minor miracle, I suspect I will end up a misunderstood cat spinster. Sounds good.
Siox Cook, Asheville, NC USA

I lived on my own for 12 years and think everyone should spend at least 2 years living alone. I'm a social person and didn't really enjoy living alone at first. But it taught me a lot about myself and made me become much more self aware. I'n now married but still enjoy some quiet time on my own. People do make the assumption that alone must mean lonely. I have a friend who can't spend even a few hours alone, and assumes eveyone else is the same.
Val , Birmingham

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