By Rachel Welch
Some people dream of living alone, while others rely heavily on social interaction both inside and outside of the home to feel fulfilled. Whether you fancy yourself an introvert or an extrovert, you may have a specific preference about who you share your home with. Our homes should be a place of rest, joy, and peace. Interestingly, whether you live with others or alone may impact your mental health in unexpected ways. It is possible that living alone and loneliness may be connected to poor health? Does living alone lead to more mental health issues?
What do you think of when you think of someone who lives alone? Do you picture a lonely hermit, ostracized from society like in a movie? Or, do you picture a strong, independent adult living their best life? It seems that society has taken both polar opposite views at different times, but which one is more likely? With the dramatized hermit example, there is often speculation that this person is unhappy. Television shows depict people who hoard, neglect their health, and hate visitors, and they almost always live alone. These people are usually unhappy, unwell, or both. While this perspective is usually portrayed in fiction (or dramatized "reality" TV), we have to investigate if there is any truth to the stereotype.
There are many studies that focus specifically on elderly adults and factors that contribute to their overall health and wellbeing. One group of researchers sent random individuals aged 65 years and older questionnaires in the mail. The questionnaires assessed loneliness, mental health issues, and physical health issues. Among the returned questionnaires, common factors emerged between the individuals who reported loneliness and mental health challenges. The majority of elderly individuals who reported feeling lonely also reported other shared factors. Among them, was living alone (1).
Another study in Finland took a slightly altered approach and studied the living situation with a focus on relationship status. They found that adults aged 30-64 who lived with a romantic partner or spouse were much less likely to report loneliness, depression, and anxiety than those who lived alone or with roommates. Their research yielded the discovery that living arrangements and relationships have a huge impact on mental health especially for men (2).
Additionally, another group compiled data from 1993, 2000, and 2007. First, they found that the reported common mental disorders from their sample were all related to loneliness. Secondly, these common mental disorders and loneliness were more common in all people who live alone, regardless of age or gender (3).
Some of the research is clear on the correlation between living alone and mental health challenges. But, it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. This means that just because something is related, it does not mean that one thing causes the other.
The available research undoubtedly confirms that loneliness has great power to cause mental health issues. These can be depression, anxiety, personality disorders, decreased immune health, and more (4). But, what about those of us that don't feel lonely when we are alone?
For many of the extroverts in the world, loneliness may be more common. For extroverts who live alone, we can gather that this is doubly true. Someone who gets energy from others is much more likely to hit a slump once they're alone. But, there are also the introverts (like myself), who can become exhausted by too much socializing. For introverts, it is common to feel more recharged, refreshed, and happy when there are not others around.
The research that we have at our disposal is heavily focused on the focal point of loneliness. But what if a person doesn't experience loneliness when they are alone? As with any informed decision, it is important to consider outlying factors. Most of our available research is centered on those who experience loneliness while living alone. The experience of loneliness undoubtedly can lead to more mental disorders. But, if you remove the loneliness factor and add in a dose of introversion, it poses a seemingly unexplored theory. Perhaps those of us who enjoy time alone, and who don't feel lonely, might be an exception to this rule! Perhaps living alone doesn't cause mental health issues for all of us.
It is clear that our available research confirms the direct and negative impact of loneliness on mental health. Many studies confirm that living alone is often a catalyst for loneliness, and therefore the increased risk of mental health disorders. However, current studies seem to have failed to consider individuals who are less prone to loneliness.
Loneliness is a side effect of living alone for many, and it can be damaging to our health. But, the two are not necessarily linked. Therefore, it might be helpful to consider how you feel and where you fall on this spectrum. If you experience loneliness as a result of living alone, studies suggest that you might be at an increased risk for mental health issues. If that's the case, it may be helpful to consider an adjustment. Moving in with someone else, adopting a pet, or bringing in some plants have all been proven to reduce loneliness (5).
For those of you who love being alone, and who almost never feel lonely, living alone might be perfectly fine.
As with any health-related choice, the best path will be unique for all of us. Find what works best for you! Make your home a safe, happy, and peaceful place, whether you share it with others, or not.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health disorders, please seek support.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.