How to Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely
At the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christine Gordon decided to create more distance between herself and others—not less. “I told my family, close friends, and co-workers that I wouldn’t be reachable all day on Sundays or after 4 p.m. on Wednesdays unless there was an emergency,” says the 54-year-old researcher. “Social distancing had such a negative connotation. I wanted to see the positive in it by intentionally taking time to explore my creativity, my relationship with myself, and my sense of God.”
After four months of spending that time hiking, biking, listening to ‘70s music, and learning to draw, Christine says she was transformed. “It was meditative,” she says. “As my body relaxed, my soul relaxed, and I felt a connection to everything around me.”
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Solitude
Although Christine’s experience may sound unique, it’s not unusual. Research suggests that solitude can be energizing, increase productivity, create opportunities for self-growth, and relieve the pressure of societal expectations.
But, as many of us know, solitude can be a double-edged sword. Loneliness and lack of social connection can impact your cardiovascular health and increase your risk of dementia, depression, and anxiety. In relation to mortality, social disconnection has been compared to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. And we’re living in a time when approximately half of all American adults say that they feel lonely.
“Solitude can be a space for constructive thoughts but can also be filled with negative rumination,” says Thuy-vy Nguyen, Ph.D., an associate professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom and co-author of the forthcoming Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone. Instead of dwelling on distressing feelings, you can take advantage of solitude by recognizing those feelings as they crop up and taking steps to address them.
6 Solitude-Savoring Strategies
If you’re ready to (or need to) lean into the positives of time alone (and avoid the negatives), try these tips.
1. Do What Only You Love
Like building miniature planes? Want to memorize pi to the last digit? Fantasizing about planning a trip to Peru? Time alone is time you can spend doing what you love without worrying about other people’s needs or judgment.
“You can dance to silly music without someone pointing out they don’t like the song you picked,” says Netta Weinstein, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. “You don’t have to negotiate or coordinate. This is a time to do things that you really enjoy in your own way.”
2. Reread the Beginning of This Article
In one study, participants who read a short paragraph about the benefits of solitude improved their emotional experience with being alone. “Simply suggesting to people that solitude can be positive was so powerful,” study co-author Micaela Rodriguez told the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research. “This is also true for lonely people. Our team's most recent research shows that teaching moderately to severely lonely people about the benefits of solitude led them to feel more relaxed and content when they were alone.”
3. Make It a Choice
“Instead of seeing time alone as something that we must do when our loved ones are not available, we can instead frame it as something that we get to do,” Rodriguez says. “When spending time alone is a choice, it is far more enjoyable and less lonely than when it’s not viewed as a choice.”
4. Remember the Time
“Solitude is so common that many of us likely don’t recognize how often it happens in our life,” says Nguyen. Think back to the occasions when you were solo and perfectly happy. What were you doing? Learning to play a piece on the piano? Digging through a scrapbook of old photos? Wandering in nature until you found the perfect resting spot? Now pick one of those activities to engage in and feel the joy.
5. Go from Tolerable to Terrific
“It helps to think of solitude as an opportunity to make a moment great—not just endurable,” says Weinstein, who also authored Solitude. “One evening when I was traveling for work and away from family, I felt lonely in my hotel room. But I set my mind to make the most of my alone time and went for a walk on a nearby beach. When I wanted to sit—and even lie down—I did. I felt grateful for the sound of the waves and the feeling of the wind. I loved the peace and quiet that came with no conversation, feeling my breath and my heartbeat, and appreciating that I could decide on every aspect of the walk, from how lazy I wanted to be to what I thought about.”
6. Keep Practicing
“Remind yourself that alone does not mean lonely,” Rodriguez says. “Our beliefs are not always easy to change, but we know from decades of research that they are malleable, not fixed. But like any skill, shifting our beliefs takes practice.”
Getting more comfortable with solitude may not happen overnight, and loneliness is a reality that can be challenging to manage at times, but if you keep sending yourself positive messages and taking action to show they’re true, you can shift your perspective.
“Identify your negative thoughts about solitude, interrupt them, and replace them with more positive beliefs,” suggests Rodriguez. “You can rewire how we see the world and how you see yourself.”
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