One summer, as a college student, I lived alone in an apartment designed for nine people. I stayed on campus that summer to complete a handful of science credits I needed to graduate, and because staying put meant I could keep seeing my therapist. To keep myself busy, I nannied a few days a week. In my free time — and there was a lot of it — I took long walks through downtown Michigan, learned to do a yoga headstand, and added new recipes to my weeknight repertoire. Then, in August, my eight roommates moved in, which was a strange adjustment. Sure, there were times that I was lonely before they arrived — but I was also happy. In my aloneness, I learned to value my own company (and I liked it).
That summer — along with some other subsequent experiences — transformed me into a solitude advocate. I prioritize solo time, whether that means eating alone or spending the occasional night by myself in the woods. There are times where my solitude feels satisfying and pleasurable. Then there are other times when being alone feels like a burden — a catalyst for my thoughts to become unhinged or anxious. In a way, solitude is like a lantern, illuminating corners of our brain we prefer to keep in the dark.
And so, when I read The Cut’s “Ask Polly” column last week, I felt a sense of kinship with the advice seeker, whose moniker was “Aspirational Loner.” A.L. was looking for guidance on how she could be happy alone (not as in single — simply when she’s alone). In particular, she wanted advice on sitting with the unpleasant thoughts that arise when she’s by herself, writing that “I think that this inability is at the core of some persistent unhappiness that I just can’t shake.” In response, Heather Havrilesky, the “Ask Polly” columnist, suggested that “instead of running away from what’s here, you need to notice what’s here… Even though this process might sound like walking straight into a haunted house… what you’ll find, when you turn on the lights, is a bunch of fake-looking automated ghosts running on car batteries.” What she means, I suspect, is that our feelings are just feelings. They don’t need to have as much power as we give them. And even when our thoughts are painful, we don’t need to run away from them (by scrolling through social media, drinking, or engaging in any number of modern-day escape tactics).
Still, it’s these painful thoughts that give solitude such a bad rap. Spending time by oneself can give rise to unwanted negative thoughts, Theresa Pauly, M.A., a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, tells Thrive. Solitude is also a conduit for self-reflection — which “can be challenging or even painful when people are questioning their own worldviews or acknowledging difficult truths,” she adds. “Yet, it is exactly this kind of difficult self-reflection that can help people to gain perspective and grow as individuals.”
When you approach solitude the right away, “a few minutes, hours, days — or even longer — can be both mentally enriching and emotionally rejuvenating,” says Pauly. And just like physical endurance, or any other skill that can be developed over time, our capacity to enjoy solitude is a muscle we can strengthen through practice. According to Pauly’s research, “people who seek out solitude more regularly in their daily lives were more likely to experience solitude positively.”
You may be more likely to make time for it if you think of alone time as self-care — which it absolutely is. After all, most of us spend our days, in large part, thinking about, reacting to, and nurturing other people’s needs. When scheduling your alone time, think about what you’d like to be doing if you weren’t always reacting to other people’s expectations, says Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a social scientist and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. DePaulo says this is the time to eat what you want, watch what you want, and sleep how you want (not bad!).
But what happens if you carve out alone time and, despite your optimism, your mind still does a number on you, pulling out all the anxious, punishing thoughts? In this case, you might try what Tim Wilson, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, calls “thinking for pleasure.” While we often sit down to think about logistics or our to-do lists, we rarely sit down, without distractions, to intentionally think about something that brings us joy. Thinking for pleasure can be a form of mindfulness, according to Wilson, who admits he embarked on his research because he struggled with meditation — particularly the idea of “quieting the mind.” Thinking for pleasure, he says, is the opposite: “It’s filling up your mind with whatever thoughts you find meaningful and interesting to dwell on and develop.”
I thought of this advice the other night, when I returned from work to an empty apartment. My partner was out late at a Giants game, and after a stressful afternoon, the last person I wanted to be with was myself. But there I was, uncomfortable and anxious and lonely — and then I remembered, I was also capable of being my own comfort. I took off my shoes, sunk into the couch, and for a moment, I cried. I let myself feel, and it wasn’t so bad. Then I focused my attention on something that brings me pleasure: making fresh tomato sauce. The repetitive motion of chopping tomatoes came to mind, a skill I learned from my grandmother. I took a deep breath, imagining wafts of sticky garlic in the air. On the exhale, I walked towards my kitchen cabinet, hopped on a stool, and pulled down a can of San Marzano tomatoes (I keep a stash of these “just in case”). I made the sauce, and my night was changed. I was alone, and I was happy.