In the year 2017, totally disengaging from the world became more and more appealing. Everything was exhausting and everything was anxiety-inducing: reading the news, going to crowded places, being around your own relatives. You’d be forgiven for wanting to spend most of it in your bed, away from the internet and other humans.
But as much as you may want to spend time alone, it’s hard to become truly comfortable with solitude; being by yourself for any significant period of time can be daunting, especially if you define alone as being without the phone that connects you to the rest of the world. One report found that we spend as much as five hours a day on our phones, so even when we’re alone — that is, not in the physical presence of people — we’re not really alone, as our devices light up and buzz with virtual pleas of connection. Other research reveals that some of us are willing to do anything not to be alone: One study found that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit in the silence of their thoughts.
Still, in the name of self-care or sanity, it’s possible to get to a place where you can spend time alone and even enjoy it — without phones, or guilt, or the nagging feeling that you’re not being “productive.” Here’s how.
Banish your prejudice.
It can be difficult for some people to get onboard with alone time because it can seem, well, undesirable. You’ve probably seen the headlines warning about the effects of loneliness: “How Social Isolation is Killing Us” and “Loneliness Might Be A Bigger Health Risk Than Smoking or Obesity.” Reading those, it might feel preferable — healthier even — to always be striving for connectivity.
But amid all the dire warnings, it’s easy to miss the fact that loneliness and solitude aren’t interchangeable concepts. “Just because you are spending time alone does not mean you are lonely,” says Robert Coplan, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and the co-editor of The Handbook on Solitude. “Loneliness is really more of a dissatisfaction with your social relationships, and feeling like your needs for relationship depth and desire to be with others are not being met. You can be the most extroverted person on the planet and still feel lonely, or you can be an introvert with a few close friends and feel fulfilled.” In other words, it’s all about choices: Feeling stuck in your own solitude may set you up for unhappiness, but spending time alone simply because you want to won’t have the same effect.
Many people also get hung up on the idea that solitude is only for introverts, and that extroverts just aren’t wired to enjoy time alone.
But surprisingly, your social personality doesn’t really matter. In one of her papers, Thuy-vy Thi Nguyen, a social psychology researcher at the University of Rochester who studies solitude, didn’t find any difference between introverts and extroverts in terms of how much they enjoy solitude. “Introverts might have less opportunities to socialize, or be less likely to reach out for social interaction, but just because you prefer to do something doesn’t mean you actually enjoy it more,” she says. So if you’ve been skipping “me” time because you thought you didn’t fit the profile of people who would like it, just know that solitude doesn’t discriminate.
Familiarize yourself with the perks.
Getting acquainted with the benefits of alone time can help you be less afraid of it, says Michael Harris, author of Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World. “When I was researching the topic for my new book, parsing out the values of solitude became a motive for me to seek it out,” he says.
Recently, Nguyen found that spending time alone can blunt high-arousal emotions, both positive and negative, meaning that it can have a calming effect. Other research has found that solitude is linked with increased creativity and helpful for sharpening problem-solving skills. Since there’s more space for you to focus on one thing at a time when you’re alone, there’s also more room for daydreaming and epiphanies to occur, says Larry Rosen, author of The Distracted Mind and a psychology professor emeritus at California State-Dominguez Hills. “In order for those things to happen, the brain’s default mode network has to be activated, something that can’t happen when we’re switching from task to task,” he says.
Studies have also found that when people spend time alone, they often gain a new understanding of themselves and their priorities. “During solitude you are able to really figure out what you like and what you believe, independent of what others are telling you to like or believe,” Harris says. “Even Netflix makes suggestions for you — there’s not much room these days to really inspect our preferences and make decisions based on them.”
Maybe counterintuitively, spending time alone can actually be a way to strengthen your relationships: solitude can increase empathy, and, as Harris explains, “it’s easier to appreciate that which is not squashed against our face.”
Realize that there’s room to experiment.
Alone time is what you make of it, and it doesn’t necessarily have to follow a routine. “What’s most important is that you are alone with your thoughts, but what you do is up to you,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist in Marathon, Florida, and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. When her clients are hesitant to start spending more time alone, she advises them to cast a wide net and go slow. “I have people try out something new every day to see what sticks, and that could be anything from journaling to nature walks to baths,” she says. “You don’t have to do huge chunks of time either — just a few minutes works to start and you can build up more as you become more comfortable.”
Coplan adds that alone time doesn’t even necessarily have to be truly solitary. “We know, for example, that being in nature can be really calming and inspiring, but there’s no strong evidence that says you can’t go on a walk with your pet or even have your partner tag along as you walk in silence,” he says. “We know it’s good to separate yourself from things that typically stress you out or your daily routines, but when it comes to physical separation, the science hasn’t confirmed the active ingredients just yet.” That being said, if there’s any chance that the adult/small child/animal joining you could bring on stress or cause you to think about their needs or situation instead, it’s best just to go by yourself.
Brace yourself for the naysayers (there will be some).
Spending time alone does come with at least a little bit of a stigma. “Culturally, we’re programmed to think that solitude is bad. Kids are given time-outs as a punishment and inmates who are misbehaving get solitary confinement,” Coplan says.
If you start avoiding or canceling plans to fly solo more frequently, then, people may begin to wonder if there’s something wrong — or become irritated with your new habit, especially if you also put down your phone to relax or be truly alone with your thoughts. Maybe they won’t understand why you aren’t immediately responding to their pings and calls. They might blame you for signing off social media and missing their baby/wedding/puppy’s kindergarten graduation announcement. Harris recalls a time when a friend got angry because he didn’t acknowledge that the friend’s father had died. The twist: The information was only posted on Facebook, which Harris hadn’t logged on to in almost a decade.
If you’re encountering hostility or confusion from your friends, it helps to frame your newfound enthusiasm for alone time as a personal health issue, says Harris. “Otherwise it’s easy to let them run your life, because [solitude] doesn’t seem important. But a vegetarian doesn’t go to a restaurant and let the restaurant decide whether or not they will eat beef that day. They decide what food intake is right for them on their own, and then find a place that fits that.” Put in those terms, it’s not just that you have permission to take and enjoy time alone; it’s something that should be done in the name of your health and sanity. You do you.
Don’t let discomfort deter you.
When you’re alone with your thoughts, things can get … real. You might end up having some eureka moments or breakthroughs, and you might also find yourself questioning every decision you ever made. “We can spend so much time and energy trying to be happy and escaping the things that are bothering us that when we finally get to a quiet place, there’s nothing distracting us from ourselves, and these negative feelings start to come out,” Morin says.
Spending time away from your phone — which ideally should be part of your alone time, since texting your friend doesn’t really count as alone — can also be painful. In some cases, that’s almost literally true: Rosen’s research has found that a phone hiatus can bring on the same symptoms of a stress response, including sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and a surge of the stress hormone cortisol. “We know that if people aren’t allowed to check their phones, even for just a few minutes, they start to feel anxious,” he says. “What complicates it is that we’ve conditioned ourselves to use checking our phones as a means of finding relief from that anxiety — but it becomes a vicious cycle.”
In order to become truly comfortable with solitude — or really, any activity that requires the absence of a phone — it helps to wean yourself off technology. Rosen’s preferred method is to start taking one-minute tech breaks every 15 minutes, increasing the amount of time between check-ins as you get more comfortable.
Ultimately, it’s helpful to realize that most new habits — working out, meditating — start off as uncomfortable and even painful experiences. “I think sometimes we believe that if it doesn’t immediately feel good, then we shouldn’t bother,” says Harris. “But solitude is not necessarily a hedonistic experience, at least not at first. It’s over time that you learn to enjoy it.”