Alone or Lonely?


I want to be alone…I just want to be alone.” Greta Garbo uttered those now-famous words in the 1932 Oscar© winning film Grand Hotel. The line would be a part of Garbo’s persona, both on and off the silver screen, for the rest of her life. Later in her life, Garbo tried to correct the impression that she was a recluse, saying: “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Garbo was right, of course. Whether or not she was reclusive, may be a matter of debate; there is no debate as to the profound difference between being alone and being lonely.

While I do not pretend to be a psychiatrist, there are a few things that seem obvious to me.

From a mental health perspective, there is a basic assumption that social interaction is very important. Most theories of psychological development assert this. I, for one, believe that the ability to connect with others is vital for healthy and successful human development.

Of course, some people prefer to be alone at certain times. I know that I do. The question then becomes why? Being alone can have its advantages. The creative person craves time alone. Any professional who takes a sabbatical and spends some time alone and uses that time creatively and productively returns refreshed, mentally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically. If individuals want to be alone because they are immersed in writing a novel or engaged in a major research project and solitude makes it easier to concentrate, then they would have an understandable reason to want to be alone. The reason why people prefer to be alone is the key to understanding whether their desire for solitude is healthy or related to social anxiety.

On the other hand, there is a great difference between being lonely and being alone. Many people are alone and lead happy lives. Since many elderly people live alone for a multitude of reasons, there is an assumption that, as a group, the elderly are probably more lonely than most among us. But that assumption is not necessarily correct. Many elderly people have developed traits or habits that help them to be comfortable with themselves alone. They have found ways to keep busy mentally. Many rely on good memories of a deceased spouse for comfort, while relishing the peace and quiet of a household void of too much activity. They have reached the point where their status quo is one of calmness. The old propaganda poster produced by the British government in 1939 during the beginning of the Second World War, intended to raise the morale of the British public in the event of invasion speaks to this point: “Keep Calm and Carry On”

keep calm
While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, isolated and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people. Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, it is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters most.

The whole issue of loneliness was addressed in a generally overlooked song of the 1940s written by Dick Robertson, James Cavanaugh, and Frank Weldon in 1944 entitled A Little On The Lonely Side. The loneliness of which this song speaks is the loneliness caused by the separation of two lovers. We are not told the reason for their separation, only that this state of affairs brings loneliness to the subject of the song. But one can imagine the cause. Certainly, placing the song in the context of all the kinds of separations caused by World War Two, loneliness was a daily reality, both in the theaters of the war and on the home-front. While the versions heard here are all sung by male vocalists, the singers could just as easily have been female singers and the message of the song would have been the same. Despite the theme of the song, Billboard magazine described the song as “lilty” and that the words were performed in “bouncy fashion.” The song, therefore, is not a dirge as might be suspected, given the subject matter. The lyrics describe the situation thusly:
I’m a little on the lonely
A little on the lonely side
I keep thinking of you only
And wishing you were by my side.
You know my dear, when you’re not here
There’s no one to romance with
So if I’m seen with someone else
It’s just someone to dance with.
Every letter that you send me
I read a dozen times or more
Any wonder that I love you
More and more.
Oh, how I miss your tender kiss
And long to hold you tight
I’m a little on the lonely side tonight.

The song was recorded by several artists, but these three versions charted on the Billboard charts in 1945. To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, right click on the song title, then right click on Save target as

Frankie Carle and his Orchestra, vocals by Paul Allen A Little On The Lonely Side
Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, vocals by Jimmy Brown A Little On The Lonely Side
Phil Moore Four, vocals by Phil Moore and the Phil Moore Four A Little on The Lonely Side


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