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How to Be Alone and Why

Time spent away from the influence of others allows us to explore and define who we are

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

The average adult spends about one-third of his or her waking time alone.

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

How are you spending yours? Scrolling Facebook? Texting? Tweeting? Online shopping? The to-do list is endless.

But time isn’t.

Alone time is an invitation, a chance to do the things you’ve longed to do. You can read, code, paint, meditate, practice a language, or go for a stroll.

Alone, you can pick through sidewalk crates of used books without worrying you’re hijacking your companion’s afternoon or being judged for your lousy idea of a good time. You need not carry on polite conversation. You can go to a park. You can go to Paris.

You’d hardly be alone. From North America to South Korea more people are now living by themselves than ever before. Single-person households are projected to be the fastest-growing household profile globally from today to 2030, according to Euromonitor International. More people are dining solo. More are traveling alone — a lot more. From vacation rental companies to luxury tour operators, industry groups have been reporting double-digit upticks in solo travel. And the boom isn’t being driven just by people who are single: The “married-with-kids” solo traveler market is growing as well. Nearly 10 percent of American travelers with partners and children are taking solo vacations during the year, according to MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers, 2016–17. In other words, traveling alone isn’t just for twentysomethings and retirees, but for anyone who wants it, at any age, in any situation: partners, parents, and singles looking for romance — or not.

Few of us want to be recluses. The rise of co-working and co-living spaces around the world is but the latest evidence of that. Yet having a little time to ourselves, be it five days in Europe or five minutes in our backyard, can be downright enviable.

Some 85 percent of adults — both men and women, across all age groups — told the Pew Research Center that it’s important for them to be completely alone sometimes. And yet many of us, even those who cherish alone time, are often reluctant to do certain things on our own — which may lead us to miss out on entertaining, enriching, even life-changing experiences and new relationships.

A series of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2015 found that men and women were likely to avoid fun public activities like going to a movie or restaurant if they had no one to accompany them. The studies suggested that people believed going alone wouldn’t be as much fun, and that they were concerned about how they might be perceived by others.

Indeed, for many of us, solitude is something to be avoided, something associated with problems like loneliness and depression. Freud observed that “the first situation phobias of children are darkness and solitude.” In many preliterate cultures, solitude was thought to be practically intolerable, as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Flow, his book about the science of happiness: “Only witches and shamans feel comfortable spending time by themselves.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a series of studies published in the journal Science in 2014 found that many participants preferred to administer an electric shock to themselves rather than be left alone with their own thoughts for fifteen minutes. Man, as scientists and philosophers from Aristotle on have noted, is a social animal. And with good reason. Positive relationships are crucial to our survival; to humanity’s collective knowledge, progress, and joy. One of the longest studies of adult life in history, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has tracked hundreds of men for about eighty years, and the takeaway again and again has been that good relationships — with family, friends, colleagues, and people in our communities — make for happy, healthy lives.

Socially isolated people, on the other hand, are at an increased risk for disease and cognitive decline. As Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard study, put it in a talk for TEDxBeaconStreet: “Loneliness kills.” Christian hermits broke up their solitary periods with communal work and worship. Thoreau had three chairs in his house in the woods, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.

Solitude and its perils is an ancient and instructive story. But it’s not the whole story. The company of others, while fundamental, is not the only way of finding fulfillment in our lives.

For centuries people have been retreating into solitude — for spirituality, creativity, reflection, renewal, and meaning. Buddhists and Christians entered monasteries. Native Americans went up mountains and into valleys. Audrey Hepburn took to her apartment. “I have to be alone very often,” she told Life magazine in 1953. “I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”

Others went great distances. Miles were sailed, flown, and driven by solo adventurers like Captain Joshua Slocum and Anne-France Dautheville, one of the first women to ride a motorcycle alone around the world. “From now on, my life would be mine, my way,” she said of riding solo 12,500 miles in 1973. Scholars have been insisting for decades that the positive aspects of solitude deserve a closer look, from the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the 1950s to the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr in the 1980s, to psychologists leading studies today. A little solitude, their research suggests, can be good for us.

For one thing, time spent away from the influence of others allows us to explore and define who we are. In private, we can think deeply and independently, as the legal scholar and privacy expert Alan Westin explained in “Privacy and Freedom.” There’s room for problem solving, experimentation, and imagination. The mind can crackle with intense focus or go beachcombing, plucking up an idea like a shell, examining and pocketing it, or letting it go to pick up another.

Thinkers, artists, and innovators from Tchaikovsky to Barack Obama, from Delacroix and Marcel Marceau to Chrissie Hynde and Alice Walker, have expressed the need for solitude at one time or another. It’s what Rodin has in common with Amy Schumer; what Michelangelo shares with Grace Jones. Philosophers and scientists spent much of their lives in solitude, including Descartes, Nietzsche, and Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize–winning geneticist who, the New York Times reported, resisted having a telephone until she was eighty-four. Countless writers, including Shakespeare, Dickinson, Wharton, Hugo, and Huxley, mined solitude as a theme. Symphonies and songs, poems and plays, and paintings and photos have been created in solitude.

For the creative person, “his most significant moments are those in which he attains some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone,” Storr wrote in his seminal book, Solitude: A Return to the Self. While other people can be one of our greatest sources of happiness, they can at times nonetheless be a distraction. Their presence may also inhibit the creative process, “since creation is embarrassing,” as the writer Isaac Asimov wrote in an essay published in the MIT Technology Review. “For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.” Monet slashed his paintings before the opening of an exhibition in Paris, declaring the canvasses unworthy to pass on to posterity. Robert Rauschenberg flung his early works into the Arno.

Yet just as alone time can be important for creation (and possible subsequent destruction), it can also be necessary for restoration. Some of the latest research has found that even fifteen minutes spent by ourselves, without electronic devices or social interaction, can decrease the intensity of our feelings, potentially leaving us more relaxed, less angry, and less worried. The studies, led by Thuy-vy Nguyen and published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggest that we can use solitude as a tool, a way to regulate our emotional states, “becoming quiet after excitement, calm after an angry episode, or centered and peaceful when desired.”

Alone, we can power down. We’re “off stage,” as the sociologist Erving Goffman put it, where we can doff the mask we wear in public and be ourselves. We can be reflective. We have the opportunity for self-evaluation, a chance to consider our actions and take what Westin called a “moral inventory.”

We can also take inventory of all the information that has accumulated throughout the day. Even Bill Clinton, exemplar of extraversion, acknowledged that as president he scheduled “a couple of hours a day alone to think, reflect, plan, or do nothing.” “Often,” he said, “I slept less just to get the alone time.”

This notion of reflection harks back to an ancient Greek principle known as epimelesthai sautou. The philosopher Michel Foucault translated it as “to take care of yourself,” and though it was once “one of the main rules for social and personal conduct and for the art of life,” Foucault observed that there is a tendency, particularly in modern Western society, to view caring for oneself as almost immoral.

And yet alone time has the potential to leave us more open and compassionate toward others. John D. Barbour, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, has written that while solitude involves the self, it’s “not necessarily narcissistic.” He’s suggested, for instance, that the solitude sought by biblical prophets may have helped shape their perspective and made them more sensitive to the suffering of people who were less powerful. “Solitude at its best,” he wrote in “The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone,” is not about “escaping the world, but toward a different kind of participation in it.”

Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in our age of scant nuance to conceive of solitude and society as either-or propositions: You’re either alone on your couch or you’re organizing dinner parties. That’s an unhelpful (and often wrong) distinction. The psychologist Abraham H. Maslow wrote in “Toward a Psychology of Being” that self-actualizing people — those who have attained the highest tier of his hierarchy of human needs — are capable of being more than one thing at one time, even if those things are contradictory. They can be simultaneously individual and social; selfish and unselfish. Decades ago, the psychologist Jerry M. Burger said in the Journal of Research in Personality that people with a high preference for solitude don’t necessarily dislike social interaction, and aren’t necessarily introverted. They probably spend most of their time around others, and enjoy it, he wrote; it’s simply that, “relative to others,” they are more likely to decide to be by themselves now and then because they appreciate the reflection, creativity, and renewal that solitude can offer.

For years, the conventional wisdom was that if you spent a good deal of time alone, something was likely wrong with you. And, certainly, as psychologists have observed, many people do withdraw because they’re socially anxious or depressed. Yet many others choose to spend time alone because they find it pleasurable. Maslow, for example, wrote that mature, self-actualizing people are particularly drawn to privacy, detachment, and meditativeness.

How much time alone feels right, however, is a matter of taste and circumstance. For some, time alone is a rare privilege; something desired but hard to get between long work hours and a full house. Others may feel they spend too much time by themselves. Finding a balance that feels good is personal, and not necessarily easy.

“When do you pause?” wrote Julia Child’s husband, Paul, in the 1950s when the Childs were living in Paris. “When do you paint or pant? When write family, loll on moss, hear Mozart and watch the glitter of the sea?”

When you’re alone.

From ALONE TIME by Stephanie Rosenbloom, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Stephanie Rosenbloom.

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