Don’t confuse loneliness with time by yourself.
“It’s not that solitude is always good, but it can be good” if you’re open to rejecting the idea that time by yourself is always a negative experience you’re being forced into. We have some evidence to show that valuing solitude doesn’t really hurt your social life, in fact, it might add to it because solitude helps us regulate our emotions, it can have a calming effect that prepares us to better engage with others.
Choosing to spend time doing things by yourself can have mental, emotional and social benefits, but the key to reaping those positive rewards comes from choosing to spend time alone. In a culture where we often confuse being alone for loneliness, the ability to appreciate time by ourselves prevents us from processing the experience as a negative thing. In fact, getting better at identifying moments when we need solitude to recharge and reflect can help us better handle negative emotions and experiences, like stress and burnout.
Being alone with your thoughts, and giving yourself the space and unstructured time to let your mind wander without social distractions, can also sometimes feel intimidating.There have been studies that show when we are by ourselves, what is uncomfortable is the lack of stimuli, that you can’t rely on other people to shape your experience in a certain way. Our aversion to being alone can be quite drastic: A quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men in a study chose to subject themselves to an electric shock rather than do nothing and spend time alone with their thoughts.
Why it’s good to spend time alone
An online survey showed that the majority of activities people defined as most restful are things that are done solo.
Despite the social stigma and apprehension about spending time alone, it’s something our bodies crave. Similar to how loneliness describes being alone and wanting company, “aloneliness” can be used to describe the natural desire for solitude. Since we’re not used to labeling that feeling, it can easily be confused for, and feed into, other feelings like anxiety, exhaustion and stress, especially since we might not know that time alone is what we need to make ourselves feel better.
Enjoying the benefits of time alone isn’t a question of being an introvert or extrovert. More consistently, people who value solitude and who tend not to ignore their own desires in the pursuit of pleasing others will find time alone more enjoyable. The freedom of not having to follow the lead of others, with “no pressure to do anything, no pressure to talk to anyone, no obligation to make plans with people,” is a great way to process and decompress, even for highly social individuals. It also helps us discover new interests and ideas without having to worry about the opinions of others.
How to do it
In a twist on the golden rule: treat yourself as you would treat others. Don’t flake. Be open to exploring new interests. Make space in your life and put in the time, even if it’s just spending 30 minutes a week reading at a cafe.
Ultimately, each person will have a different ideal balance between how much time they spend alone and with others, but nobody is going to be optimally served by doing only one or the other. Above all, the most important step in being able to reap the benefits of time alone is simple. Take the opportunity to say, ‘This is the time where I can give something to myself,’ and just endorse that, in this moment, you are your first choice.”