The ineffable joy of being alone

We look at the benefits of solitude when it isn’t enforced loneliness but finding joy in your own company. Being alone can really help you connect with yourself.

How often are you by yourself on a typical day? Shared housing, packed commuter trains, open-plan offices and busy social lives mean that the toilet or bath is perhaps the only time that you’re ever alone. Is this lack of solitude in life affecting your health?

The late psychologist Ester Buchholz wrote: ‘Both the need to be alone and to engage others are essential to human happiness and survival…Mother Nature gives aloneness a high priority: sleep is nature’s way of ensuring solitude.’

However, with insomnia and other sleep disorders on the rise, is it enough for us to just get our ‘alone time’ in bed sleep? Buchholz championed solitude as a means of preserving good relationships and achieving good mental health.

Need for privacy
The need for solitude is linked to a need for privacy because, even though it seems that modern folk share their deepest thoughts with everyone, at heart we need to keep something back for ourselves. It is why we find open-plan offices so stressful; our energies are up against that of others constantly. On crowded public transport, people tend to have a fixed middle-distance gaze as way of establishing one’s privacy needs.

Our social media addiction means we are sharing more and more details of our lives. If all your entire life is online, it can feel even lonelier to not be understood, or engaged with, by friends and family. However, if you are regularly honouring and nurturing your private self, a lack of ‘likes’ will never negatively impact your sense of self. You build up a self-reliance that is a great help in times of crisis (like when the wifi goes down).

Space Invaders
Solitude isn’t easy and many of us find it near impossible just to be alone for even five minutes. Try it yourself at home. Sit comfortably in a room without distraction and try to just ‘be’ for five minutes. Invariably, your mind will rush ahead to your ‘to do’ list, the compulsion to turn on the TV will be very strong and above all, you’ll feel guilt at ‘wasting time’. Solitude for health isn’t about being left alone to watch your favourite programme uninterrupted, as this is just again a passive interaction with the world; it is being able to rest our overactive brains and bodies.

Solitude in relationships
People in relationships are often afraid of hearing sentences like: ‘I need some space.’ It has become a clichéd way of rejecting someone, but we do need space in relationships – even if we love spending lots of time together. Think of it this way; if you live in each other’s pockets, you won’t have anything to tell each other after a while. If you go off and have adventures by yourself, even if it is just a solitary walk or a restaurant lunch alone, you can re-connect with each other by talking about your individual days and how your day went. Plus, on occasion, it is nice to not have to compromise. A lunch by yourself can take you to enjoy cuisine that your partner dislikes or you can play music you prefer without having to think about the other person.
There’s also the romantic notion that you give yourselves space to miss each other.

While no conclusive studies have been done on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that getting away from everyone and everything for a short period of time is conducive to good health. Psychologists don’t give guidelines on how much ‘alone time’ you should have since each person is different. However, as little as ten minutes a day could be enough to refresh you.

TIPS FOR ‘ME TIME’

  • Wake up ten minutes earlier than your usual waking time and have morning coffee alone.
  • Arrive 15min early for work and just sit at your desk, savouring the silence before the rush of colleagues.
  • If the open-plan office gets too much during the day, go for a short walk.
  • Try dining out alone – as long as some annoying instagrammer doesn’t mistake you for a lonely older person and try and take a selfie with you for his account, you should find not having to interact with anyone other than the waiting staff is relaxing and liberating.
  • At weekends, put half an hour of ‘me time’ in your diary. Then take off to a park and just sit by yourself for that time. Don’t let anyone or anything allow you to break that date with yourself – housework and shopping can wait a while.

Here’s why establishing boundaries is important for happiness.