Why You Should Learn To Be Alone
I don’t remember the last time I was without my phone.
I’m not the kind of person who forgets theirs at home or leaves it on the train because it’s always in my hand, in my pocket or purposely stashed at the top of my bag so I can still glance at it intermittently. I like being reachable at any moment. I like seeing how many steps I accrue throughout the day. I like being able to look up things at the drop of a hat. I like knowing what the origin of “drop of a hat” is. I like going on Wikipedia deep dives and using apps to log my sleep patterns, even though I know I shouldn’t be using screens in the hour before bedtime. I like my phone. And I refuse to feel bad about it.
My phone is my knowing totem; it has the answers to everything. And maybe because of this I feel I spend very little time alone with my own thoughts.
Have we forgotten what bored feels like?
It’s a plight on our socially inclined generation that we never really stop being connected. Waiting for the train, we’re on our phones. In the car, we’re listening to music, podcasts and radio shows to keep ourselves entertained. At work, we’re periodically checking news, updates from friends, silly cat videos to enlighten our rigorous daily schedules. At night, we watch television, play games, go out drinking and connect with people. It’s rare for us to be alone with our own thoughts, with nothing to focus on or distract us.
No one is arguing the modern convenience of having a smart phone. It’s 2017, smart phones are part of the parcel, whether we like it or not, and resenting them is probably fruitless. Instead, psychologists are focussing more on what our attachment to these devices does to our inner monologues. Should we be cherishing our childhood/pre-internet memories of “vacant and pensive” moods? Are smart phones limiting boredom and loneliness? And if so, is this a good or bad thing?
On being alone and feeling lonely
It’s important to note the distinction between being alone and feeling lonely.
Dr Abigail Brenner told Psychology Today that for many of us, “alone is a negative state of being.” Cultural assumptions about being alone don’t help either, for being alone often carries with it a social stigma that implies isolation or “being on the outside.” According to Dr Brenner, this perceived sense of aloneness “seems to imply that being by one’s self is not volitional, that it’s not a choice we make but rather, an imposed state where a person is not socially engaged in the way that is somehow expected.” Piling on that thought, aloneness might even imply that there’s something wrong with a person who remains alone.
Humans are social creatures. Our lives are built around our relationships with other people. We coexist, we battle, we empathise, we suffer and we love… together. We depend on having social connections and most people (not all, but most) suffer when we don’t have these. There are plenty of people who spend their days alone (including those who live on remote corners of the globe) and there’s often nothing bad about this. But being alone isn’t the same as feeling lonely.
Loneliness, on the other hand, might imply having less social connections than you’d like to have. Dr Brenner says loneliness implies “you are looking for someone or something that you feel you need in order to feel secure and happy.”
The idea of “doing nothing”
A recent psychological investigation led by The University of Virginia found that most people would rather being doing something – maybe even hurting themselves – than do nothing, or face sitting alone, in silence, with their thoughts. Basically, we’re not comfortable in our own heads.
A series of 11 studies were conducted by the researchers, revealing that participants (from a range of ages) generally don’t enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. By and large, the participants preferred to do external activities like listening to music or using a smartphone.
That last part isn’t a huge shock – we’d rather distract ourselves with something than do nothing at all. But they also found some would actually prefer to give themselves mild electric shocks than do nothing and think. Alarming? Probably.
But here’s the kicker: most participants said they found it hard to concentrate and that their minds would wander – even though nothing was competing for their attention. Are we so trained to quell those vacant thoughts with mindless scrolling or episode binging that we think “doing nothing” counts for wasted time or futile thinking?
Why being alone is important
Alone and lonely are often thought of as being the same, but it’s important to remember being alone doesn’t equal loneliness. Learning to be alone and be happy with yourself once you get there sounds daunting, but once mastered, it’s a key cornerstone for development and growth as a fully-functioning adult. As Dr Brenner puts it: “There’s so much to be gained from learning to rely, and more importantly, to trust your own inner voice as the best source for your own guidance.” Right on, sister.
Being by yourself lets you drop that “social guard” we often put up around people. Once it’s dropped, it gives us the freedom to be introspective, to think for ourselves, and maybe even make better choices based on what we really want – without those outside influences. “Often, we are swayed by the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of those in our immediate sphere,” says Dr Brennan. “Of course, you may ask others for their advice and opinions but ultimately, consulting yourself and making up your own mind about what you want to do will lead you into the life that’s best for you.”
How to be alone
We can’t completely eradicate the social stigma that comes with being alone, but we might be able to make peace with it through an intuitive kind of exposure therapy.
Start off small – make time in your weekly schedule to be by yourself – this can be as small as a 10 or 20 minute block of time – away from external influences. Put your phone down, turn off your music, close your laptop and see where your thoughts drift. If you find it hard to just sit and do nothing, try meditation (this app is great). When you’re ready, try taking yourself out to a movie or to dinner solo. Give back to yourself – you’re worth it. And who knows, once you give yourself the gift of your own time and energy, it might reignite your creativity, drive and passion. Hell, it might even help you with that nagging self care check list you’ve been battling with.
Rebecca Russo is a freelance writer, editor, community radio dabbler, occasional hiker and celebrity autobiography enthusiast. She has written for online publications including Junkee, AWOL, Fashion Journal and Tone Deaf. Find her online here.