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‘How Do You Learn to Be Happy Alone?’

Photo: Joel Simon/Getty Images


How do you learn how to be happy alone? I don’t mean in the sense of being single, although I am. What I don’t have is the ability to sit alone with myself and with my thoughts, and I think that this inability is at the core of some persistent unhappiness that I just can’t shake.

I would probably describe myself as an extrovert. Several years ago I decided to start a Ph.D. program in the humanities, in a field which grabbed me with some thick and thorny questions. I found, as expected, that the work of a doctoral student is isolating — you need to spend hours reading alone, thinking alone, and writing. I am not a natural writer, and I find it difficult to get words on the page when I don’t have an impending deadline. From the start I dealt with all this anxiety by really investing in the community around me. I found friends for coffee dates, for happy hours, for walks around campus. I hosted people at dinner parties, and started a really bustling wine-tasting club where I could introduce all these different friends to each other. It was exciting and a necessary distraction from hours in the library. Moments of real connection and meaty conversation with others sustained me as I tried to be good at what I signed up to do. The Ph.D. forced me to confront my own intellectual limitations and my own laziness almost every day, and my friends were a break from that suffocation.

At times all the socializing felt frenetic. I was resigned to the idea that I had to be the one to organize events, to send out invitations, to make those moments of connection happen. I felt like my need to see people was higher than everyone else’s. I also felt obligated to continue in the same way — who was I if I wasn’t hosting dinner parties? People did reach out to me, but it felt like they didn’t.

Midway through my degree, I won a fellowship that let me leave the United States for a country in Europe, where I could work on my dissertation in peace. I was so eager to break away from everything. I wanted to isolate myself and break all those obligations that I had built up in my head. Little was keeping me in the States, after all: I don’t have a pet, I don’t have a partner, and I don’t have a mortgage. Many of my friends at the university were also leaving, or were about to leave; academic communities are transient, as if they have an expiration date. When I first moved abroad, I was thrilled and sad and desperate and all the strong emotions you feel in the middle of that famous “honeymoon period.” I got out every day to work on the hands-on part of my project, and I felt so profoundly lucky (I still do).

It has been over a year since I arrived in Europe, and I have another year to go. I can speak the language better, I have a stable house, I have a routine at the library every day. I am trying, not very successfully, to write enough. At the same time I’m feeling some of those old frenetic feelings come back. I slowly fill up my evenings with drink dates until I go out for a cocktail every night. I am antsy to escape the library, and find every excuse for a walk or a coffee or something that will get me out of this seat. My need to socialize has been creeping up again in a way that doesn’t feel fulfilling, but desperate.

This emotion came to a head this Monday, when I had no plans and my roommates were not at home. I became so morose, and jittery, and self-pitying. I had everything I needed at my disposal to fill up that space in my head (books, television, an unfinished painting that I haven’t touched in months), but instead decided to drink one too many glasses of wine and scroll on Instagram. This is what I do every time I don’t have a plan for the evening. I don’t like who I am when I am like this. The socializing has become a compulsion that I can’t quite shake, and I don’t know how to find balance. It’s like I need to fill up every space in my life until I can’t think. On an intellectual level I understand something about my motivations (external validation only gives you a temporary high), but when it comes to what I should actually do, I feel lost.

Aspirational Loner

Dear Aspirational Loner,

I love your letter a lot because you describe, in vivid detail, half of a full life: You have the intellectual and social side of things covered. You know how to reach out to people and connect with them intellectually. You realize it takes a lot of initiative to make things happen. You stick your neck out, and you’re self-aware about the fact that even though it sometimes feels like you’re doing all of the work, people do reach out to you, too. You even chose to live with roommates in Europe in spite of your need for solitude. You realized that you wanted to be a part of a community again, particularly with all of the solitary work you need to do in school.

The half of your life that’s missing is feelings. You diligently build things using your brain but you’ve neglected your heart and your body along the way. You need to learn how to get in touch with your body and how to exist in space without surrendering yourself to that rapid-fire barrage from your brain.

The more I write this column and also confront my own bad wiring every day, I’m astounded at how infrequently we distinguish between thoughts and feelings in our culture. I get 15 letters a day that, no matter what problems are being described, boil down to humans who don’t know how to turn their heads off and just fucking exist and feel whatever they’re feeling without running away from it. Obviously the universes that spring from our phones are a big part of this shared deficiency: At that moment when we want to relax, we reach to our phones first, unthinkingly, as if they’re packed full of kittens frolicking in grassy pastures and sunshine streaming through tall trees. We believe that we’re relaxing, that we’re spending time with ourselves, but what we’re really doing is stuffing a frenetic parade of images and opinions and ideas into our eyeballs, expecting our brains to process a tangled trash heap of other people’s lives and opinions along with bad news from across the globe.

Your other methods of unwinding, TV and alcohol, are similarly detrimental to your electrical system. There’s a strange unbalanced state that the body enters when it’s fed other people’s stories and opinions for hours, along with a slow (or fast?) drip of booze. You numb your nerve endings with alcohol in order to metabolize the facts and the stories, but the body and heart don’t learn anything. There is no felt connection to the moment. It’s no surprise that you refer to your socializing as “filling up” your calendar with “drink dates,” saying “I go out for a cocktail every night.” There are faceless nobodies in this picture, ushered in and out for a cocktail and some chatter. Their relationship to you and your feelings about them are beside the point. They are placeholders.

Likewise, you don’t talk about your interesting roommates, the TV shows you love, the type of news you like to read online, the sorts of layers of study and intellectual discovery that have opened up to you since moving to Europe. I understand it’s an anonymous letter and some of these things might’ve filtered through if you were describing your life to a friend back home. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you paint your life as a passionless blur of frantic activity, devoid of meaning or connection. Like many people who struggle to feel their feelings, you were able to feel invigorated and alive and enthralled when you first moved to Europe. The jolt of your brand-new environment triggered deep feelings that gave your life a glow for a few months. Now you’re back to your old state: a jumble of nerve endings, receiving undifferentiated stimuli and sending all of those electric impulses to the brain, which quickly becomes fried and needs some booze to settle it the fuck down.

You need your body to help calm your brain. You need your feelings to help organize your thoughts. Instead, you’re feeding yourself empty chatter, empty dramatic narratives, empty scrolling text, and pouring wine over the whole thing so that it melts together and becomes a blob of anxious nothingness by the next day.

You describe this process as emotional but it’s not. You write, “This emotion came to a head this Monday, when I had no plans and my roommates were not at home. I became so morose, and jittery, and self-pitying.” You were anxious and your brain told you that your aloneness meant that you were bad, that you had somehow fucked up and being alone was proof of that. You became morose because your thoughts told you that the situation was all your fault, and that a happy, healthy, good person would never be in your shoes. Instead of asking, “Am I depressed? If so, what’s dragging me down? What do I love and care about? What am I avoiding feeling right now?,” you were determined to escape from what you perceived as the agony of being alone.

I’m sure this bleeds into your academic work, too. When you don’t know how you feel and your body never feels calm and well rested, it is INCREDIBLY difficult to write. In order to write clear, focused sentences and to reflect on complex, layered concepts, you need to feel your way through the world in a relatively peaceful, observant state. Logic and analysis, paired with the strange art of creation involved in typing out words, is exceptionally challenging without a fluid relationship to your feelings.

That doesn’t mean that you have to be in therapy every day of the week (though finding a therapist certainly wouldn’t hurt). You can start by moving your focus away from this irrational fear of being alone with your thoughts. You’re actually alone with your thoughts all day long — they’re already torturing you and making you anxious and upset around the clock. You need to notice that, first of all. You’re addicted to this illusory moment when you finally get a break from your own head — you are focused on another person, you get to pour a drink into your face, you get to watch people emote on TV, you get to stare at your phone. These things are all enjoyable and soothing, in small amounts, in the context of a full, balanced life — with a rested, healthy body and a calm mind. But for you, they’re the heroin that turns your brain off for a second. If you want a healthier, more sustainable feeling of calm, you need to spend more time alone, drink less, exercise more, and tune in to your feelings more often.

You don’t need to escape from anything. That’s the first thing you need to understand. Instead of running away from what’s here, you need to notice what’s here. You need to listen to your frenetic mind tell you things — not just when you’re alone, but all day long. (You just happen to hear those thoughts the most clearly when you’re alone, which is why you’re so afraid of being alone.) You need to hear how your brain thinks you’re fucking up all the time — which is part of the reason you struggle to write. You need to listen to how you’ve hollowed out the relationships you do have, telling yourself that these people don’t matter, they don’t really care, they’re temporary time fillers. You need to notice how often you repeat to yourself the idea that your academic work doesn’t matter, doesn’t add up, isn’t worthy or interesting.

Even though this process might sound like walking straight into a haunted house and scaring the shit out of yourself for no reason, what you’ll find, when you turn on the lights, is a bunch of fake-looking automated ghosts running on car batteries. You’ve got to shine a flashlight on these wilted ghouls and see them for the self-created echoes of your underlying anxieties. Your anxieties are your mind’s way of trying to handle all of the feelings trapped inside your skin. You never let them out. The automated ghost is your irrational fear, the car battery is your anxiety, which is recharged whenever you try to take your feelings and stuff them inside your brain instead of just FEELING THEM, which would drain the energy there and keep the ghosts from dancing around.

When you feel your feelings, you turn your haunted house into a regular house. Feeling your sadness and your longing and your love for the people who matter to you is a way of dragging those fake ghosts out to the curb and stuffing them into the trash. Are you morose or depressed, or are you just sad sometimes? Is this a momentary manic feeling, or is it actual joy? When you pay attention to how you’re feeling, your thoughts slow down. You can focus. You don’t have one regimented cocktail a night with some interchangeable acquaintance. Instead, you listen to your friend, Mario, tell you about his mother. You tell him how you miss autumn in the U.S. The moment slows down, the lights behind the bar twinkle, you take a deep breath and imagine crawling into bed feeling calm for once. You don’t have a second drink. You don’t pick up your phone without thinking. You remember how it felt to arrive on this continent, the buzz of it, the way the melodious din of the language soothed you. You feel grateful to be alive.

Get up every morning and go for a walk and don’t let yourself think frantic thoughts. Focus on the air and the noises. Focus on the light dancing across the river, the birds flapping their wings on a rooftop. When you work, tell yourself that your mind is capable of untold wonders, it just needs some room to make messy digressions and double back on itself. Let your thoughts tumble across the page without judgment. When you get home at night and no one is there, sit alone on the couch and let your body tell you what it wants. It doesn’t want words scrolling on a screen. It doesn’t want someone else’s story, someone else’s world, blasted into its synapses. It doesn’t want a sour taste of wine and dry eyes in the morning. Your body wants a peaceful time to reflect, without fear, on the most promising and exciting and glorious year of your young life, far away from home, among new friends. This is your romance, this last year in Europe. Feel how romantic it is. You will never be here again, like you are at this moment, so fucking young and alive and beautiful and scared. Feel all of it.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘How Do You Learn to Be Happy Alone?’