Can You Find Joy in Being Alone?
How to transform loneliness into satisfying solitude
I first heard of cafés in a high school history class on the French enlightenment. My teacher described these charming spaces as caves of connection where revolutionaries and philosophers, like Rousseau and Voltaire, would gather to talk about ideas. Some of which would spark a revolution and change the world.
That communal image has become lonelier in recent years. Cafés today, whether in New York or Singapore, Manila or Tokyo, have become quieter, self-actualizing nooks, like mini hermitages. In all these cities, I notice a familiar pattern, coffee tables turned into silos making cafés more like libraries than public arenas.
Some may dismiss this trend as a sad sign of how self-oriented our world is becoming. But, I find this peculiar, solipsistic habit intriguing.
As a college student, I spent long afternoons in coffee shops finishing papers and studying for exams. It would always fascinate me how so many older adults could look completely happy spending hours sitting all alone. They’d sit nose-deep in books or laptops, some even wrote in journals, but they were always alone.
Observing them, I’d wonder what the secret to their content solitariness was, especially on days when, across my own empty chair, my companion-less self felt rather tragic. Those days, I yearned for someone to fill that empty seat.
Ironically, my married friends were the ones who led me to the secret of happy loners. They taught me to approach each chance for solitude with eagerness, rather than dread. They taught me to dig past the absence and take hold of the opportunity to discover myself. They warned me I’d miss those empty moments once I settled down.
They also taught me learning to be a happy loner was key to being a better partner. How that happens, I wasn’t sure. But their experience told me to trust they knew what they were talking about.
Now married and expecting, I’m thankful I listened. Chores, unpredictable pregnancy emergencies, and the never-ending list of things to take care of that comes with the coupled life often rob me of a chance for a quiet moment. Me-time has become as precious as gold, and just as rare.
As happy I am to have a wonderful man to come home to, and soon a little girl, I also miss the freedom to indulge in quiet aloneness.
But when I do get a few minutes for myself, doing what makes my heart come alive, I notice a strange paradox. I emerge from the solitude with so more energy. I feel ready to connect and give. My friends were right! Happy solitude is connected, in some mysterious, way to being a better lover.
Experiencing this surprising contradiction for myself makes me even more convinced that the art of turning loneliness into satisfying solitude is a crucial life skill. This art breeds joy not only for ourselves but also for those we hold most dear.
It’s an art crucial to loving as well as being kind. Because it’s such a vital skill, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned to turn painful loneliness into happy solitude. Thankfully, these tricks aren’t just mine. Some of the best writers, sages, and artists swear by their magic too.
Use Solitude to Clear Mental Cobwebs
I used to begin my days rushing to finish tasks left from the night before: dishes to wash, laundry to iron, papers to grade, a call to the electrician or plumber. By noon, I’d feel dispersed, exhausted, unhappy, bombarded, and overwhelmed, even on mornings I got everything “done”. I’d wake up the next day dreading the new set of tasks that would wash over me.
That’s how I learned that bustle was a lousy way to start and when I decided to change my ritual. Instead of beginning mornings swimming in the pool of never-ending to-dos, I’d resist the lure of my work and immerse myself in what I found meaningful: reading and jotting down uplifting thoughts. I made scripture, a biography of someone I admired, a chapter from an author who writes beautifully and recanted joyful moments from the day before. This shift brightened everything else that came after.
Carving out time for solitude became as vital as a cup of coffee. It filled me with a happy eagerness to face the day. It helped me remember what I wanted to live for. It reconnected me to what was most energizing about my self and my life. It put me in touch with the best I could share with those around me.
Putting solitude first allowed me to sift through my inner clutter which, when left unsorted, only distracts from harmony, purpose, and contentment. This new ritual re-introduced me to the sacred act of reflection. A time which inspires me to focus on what I value most.
Choosing to halt the never-ending rush in our lives, even for a few minutes, can feel impossible. We fear we’ll get lazy about our goals, or miss an important deal, maybe even leave a poor impression on our colleagues. When these fears set in, it helps to remember that disconnecting from our practical lives for a few minutes doesn’t usually lead to the doom we imagine.
Or, to say the same thing in a wonderfully sardonic way, here’s a quote from that writer, Anne Lammott,
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
I like to think of it as,
Almost everything will work BETTER if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
Trust me. Unplugging will lead to a happier, friendlier, and more focused you.
See Solitude As An Opportunity
Our superficial world makes it easy to forget how much goodness hides in you.
What we hear around us, from our bosses, parents, friends, and social media can make us feel poorer than we really are.
The theologian Henri Nouwen told a story of a young man who was applauded by everyone but feared that if his friends knew his real self, they’d discover how empty he was. Many of us are like this young man. We’re afraid we don’t really matter. That’s why we hustle and push ourselves to achieve as much as we can, even if it means missing out on sleep, healthy relationships, sacred solitude, and whatever matters most.
Enough me-time empowers us to mute and resist the lure of these false messages. It gives us clarity to see from within, and discover that our dignity doesn’t rest on what we do or accomplish, how much we make, or how impressive we seem on the outside.
Our dignity is a richness inside us; no one can take it away.
And this worthiness is best seen not in how much we produce, but in how deeply we love.
C.S. Lewis once wrote:
Next to God, our neighbor is the holiest object presented to our senses.
That’s because of how much goodness hides in the human heart.
Solitude helps you remember that. It enables you to see the inner richness our superficial world often hides from you. It gives you the space to see who you are. How lovely and graced you truly are, and how lovely and graced each human is beside you.
Transform Solitude into Creative Fuel
You and I were designed to create. And creating isn’t just making, or numbers, or how many words we write. Creating, in its best sense, is about shaping our world so that it reflects the inner richness inside everything human.
Solitude is fertile ground for discovering the hidden gems nestled in all human experience. Whether its the radiance of nature, the smile of a close friend, or the haunting seduction of a symphony — these moments are most vivid when our minds are at ease.
It’s easier to see the grace in life when our attention is focused and calm. It’s also easier to echo the poetic sparks that pulsate around us when we aren’t dominated by the boredom and chaos that threatens to suffocate our creativity.
Just as beauty is easier to see in solitude, it is also easier to create. And little in life is as satisfying as making something beautiful. Perhaps that’s why Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say about solitude,
Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.
The secret to unearthing the joy in loneliness is to transform it. Use it to find meaningful focus and turn it into a telescope directed at human goodness. With that mindset, we can forever fuel our creativity.