How to Enjoy More Alone Time—Without Feeling Lonely (or Guilty)
There are proven benefits to spending time by yourself. Learn to carve out time for yourself that feels like a restorative treat.
If you’re one of the rare people who like spending time by themselves, enjoy this article as validation of your natural instincts. If, on the other hand, you’re among those who would rather endure physical pain than spend time alone with your thoughts (true story: in a 2014 study published in Science, many of the participants preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than spend 6 to 15 minutes by themselves with nothing to do), we’d like to change your mind about solitude.
People who value their alone time are often accused of being antisocial, aloof, or just plain weird. But recent research has uncovered positive benefits of solo time. “Studies show people feel rejuvenated when they are alone,” says Julie Bowker, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo in New York whose 2017 study revealed that unsociability—defined as deliberately withdrawing from social situations and choosing to be alone—was linked to an increase in creativity.
And those aren’t the only benefits of alone time, says Jack Fong, PhD, a professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who has studied solitude. “Today people feel overloaded being connected to the grid, and they’ve lost their ability to engage with the self,” he explains. “When you’re alone, you regain your center of gravity. You’re forced to confront yourself and get to know who you really are.” The payoff? “Solitude builds self-esteem, clarity, and empathy.”
While being alone has benefits, feeling lonely does not. Loneliness—a real or perceived feeling of social isolation—has been proven to be a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and depression, and studies show it can raise levels of stress hormones and inflammation. “Loneliness typically refers to a dissatisfaction with your personal relationships in terms of quality or quantity,” explains Bowker. “You can be lonely in the presence of others, not just when you are alone.”
It’s that fear of loneliness that keeps some of us from seeking solitude. But when you reframe the idea of solitude as something positive that you deserve—something that will help you grow—it’s easier to separate the two ideas.
“Aloneness is an opportunity rather than something that is painful or threatening,” says psychotherapist Lauren Mackler, the author of Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness and Transform Your Life. “Generally speaking, from childhood we’re taught to avoid being alone at all costs, but it can help you feel whole from the inside out, in balance and content with yourself.”
It all sounds so positive—and yet. When we spend time alone, we might end up taking a long and sometimes hard look at our feelings and behaviors, introspection that is easier to avoid in the hustle of everyday life. “Lots of people are not able to appreciate their own company,” explains Fong. “People who don’t tend toward solitude may be escaping, not holding themselves accountable for their actions toward others.”
If that sounds heavy, Mackler has a lighter take. “A critical component for having a healthy relationship with yourself is self-compassion,” she says. “People are hard on themselves, feel bad about themselves. They think they’re not good enough.” When you let go of your self-judgments, you’ll find you enjoy your own company more.
Some days it feels impossible to squeeze a shampoo into the schedule, much less find the time to nurture your creativity and self-esteem. But experts emphasize that each of us can find moments of solitude that best suit our lives. “You don’t have to say, ‘OK, family, fend for yourself for three months. I’m off to India!’” says Mackler. “It can be as simple as taking an hour or two for yourself each week.”
Or even less, especially if this is new to you. “Start with short periods of time—10 minutes, 15 minutes,” says Bowker. “See what happens—whether you enjoy it and how you feel afterward.”
What you do is up to you. In an international study on rest conducted by BBC Radio 4 and a group including researchers from Durham University in England, the top two most restful activities cited by participants were reading and “being in the natural environment”—both excellent ways to spend time alone. But not the only ways.
“You don’t have to be productive or meditate. Sometimes just being alone and doing nothing might be most beneficial. If you feel like it’s a stress reduction, it’s rejuvenating, and it makes you better able to connect with yourself, then go for it,” says Bowker. Perhaps the most crucial thing, Fong says, is going about your alone time intentionally and confidently. “Acknowledging to yourself that you’re going to spend time alone develops courage, a boldness.”
Fong does stress the importance of enjoying solo time for yourself, not for a social media moment. “Don’t go to the beach by yourself and practice solitude for two hours, then go on Facebook to blab about it,” he says. “Go for 15 minutes, tell no one, and enjoy. You don’t need validation. The point is that you are validating yourself.”