Our society often demonizes the idea of being alone, but there is something to be said for spending time by yourself – and it doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. There is a quiet power in being alone, and it can do wonders for your self-development.
Alone vs. Lonely
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and being alone can often feel, well, lonely. But it’s important to understand that being alone and being lonely are not inherently the same thing.
“Research shows that people who spend a significant amount of time alone can also be very fulfilled socially, and people can be lonely while surrounded by others,” says Celeste Headlee, communication and human nature expert and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter.
“The important part,” Headlee says, “is to maintain close contact with at least a couple people. Having close companions can literally spell the difference between life and death. In some studies, knowing about someone’s social life helped researchers predict who would still be alive in 10 years. That’s how important close relationships are.”
Dealing with loneliness
Of course, we all get lonely sometimes, and that’s okay.
Psychologist Ashley Hampton says to deal with loneliness, you must first determine why you are lonely.
“Doing the work to uncover why you experience loneliness and where those feelings come from will help reshape those experiences and feelings from negative – being lonely – to positive – feeling grateful for the quiet, for example.”
When you’re feeling lonely, Headlee recommends connecting with others.
“Tell someone that you’re lonely. … Even strangers are willing to respond when you tell them you need to talk. As the researcher Nicholas Epley said, nobody waves but almost everyone waves back. We are all afraid to reach out to others, but there’s solid research that shows [our] fears are unfounded. People like us more than we think, and we are more pleasant and likeable in conversations than we realize.”
Hampton explains the key to dealing with loneliness is to get in touch with yourself.
“Are you telling yourself you’re alone because you’re unworthy? Have you created a story for yourself that being alone is better even if you’re feeling lonely? Are these even true, or are these stories protective for you? Doing the work to uncover what you may be contributing to feeling lonely is important, as actions, feelings and thoughts are all intertwined.”
Enjoying our own company
If we can come to see being alone as a positive experience, we can begin to enjoy our own company and even love being by ourselves.
“At this point in human history, [enjoying our own company] can be a challenge because we are so easily distracted and rarely bored,” Headlee says. “We are so used to texting and tweeting and commenting on Facebook that we quickly get tired of simply enjoying our own company.”
In fact, Headlee says a major cause of what she calls society’s “loneliness epidemic” is our smartphones.
“Most adults spend more time texting than talking on the phone, but a text is not a replacement for interaction in person or over the phone. We get all kinds of information from the human voice that is not present in email or texts.”
The best way to get used to enjoying our own company, away from our devices, is to start slowly, Headlee says.
“Give yourself a half hour every day in which you don’t touch your phone, tablet or computer and simply take a walk (without headphones) or read a book or do whatever you like to do by yourself. When you’ve begun to get used to 30 minutes of solo time, you can start to increase it to an hour and so on.”
Hampton suggests finding a solo activity you love.
“For some people, this is exercise with headphones in and the music turned up loud. For others, this could be a long drive by ourselves taking time to really listen to what we are feeling and thinking,” Hampton says.
“Examining how we think and feel will allow us to reframe our negative experiences into positive.”
She explains we might begin with just liking the quiet that being alone affords us because it’s a reprieve from our very loud workplace or our boisterous kids, for example. Soon that quiet will become a comfort, and we naturally seek things that make us comfortable.
“The habit needs to be established, but the mindset shift to being okay with being by ourselves has to happen first,” she says.
But more than anything, learning to love being alone starts with loving ourselves, Hampton explains.
“If you love yourself, you become the best company you could ever have. When you accept your gifts, your talents, and especially your faults that work together to make you an amazing and unique person, you’ll be able to appreciate the time to yourself to relax, unwind, recharge or simply just be.”
The benefits of being alone
There are many pros to being alone – it’s not all cons.
Headlee says being alone has been shown to increase empathy, creativity and productivity.
“Mostly, your brain needs down time. It needs time to relax and unwind and think through all of the things you’ve heard and done in recent days. Spending time alone allows you to put recent events into context and to understand yourself better through deeper thought.”
Hampton adds that, for her, being alone is a perfect time to recharge.
“I can calm my mind and my body and then prepare to work with people again the next day. Being alone serves a purpose in preparing me to be around people.”
Additionally, when you’re alone “you learn how to make decisions quickly and in your best interests, as no one else is there to make them for you,” she says. “You learn how to depend on yourself.”