The majority of the United States is under some form of “shelter-in-place” or “safer at home” order right now. For some, that means holing up with a significant other, while others are with an entire family, including school-age kids. A large portion of the population, however, is home alone with nothing but their own thoughts, the occasional conversation with a food delivery driver, and a bottomless pit of Netflix. Were this any other year — a year where the world was not in the clutches of a global pandemic — that trio of circumstances might sound like a vacation. However, as the days have turned into weeks and then to months, the novelty no doubt wears thin.
We are hardwired to need at least some human interaction. Society also continually reminds us of how awful being alone feels or should feel. Prisoners are threatened with solitary confinement as the ultimate form of punishment. Most of us can’t surrender our phones for longer than 20 minutes without abandonment creeping in from the lack of social media feedback. On an existential scale, the fear of “dying alone” looms large over some of us as a fate worse than death. There is some truth to the awfulness of these things. Socializing with family, friends, and even strangers is a necessary component of our emotional well-being. However, it needn’t be a crutch or the only way that we can feel whole.
For those feeling isolated right now, there is — or at least can be — a silver lining to being alone. It’s a matter of shifting one’s perspective. For millennia, philosophers, creative types, and proud introverts have sought escape to uncover the virtues of being utterly, blissfully alone. For some, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. If it helps to frame your situation, remember that it’s not forever (we will get through this pandemic and go outside again), and family and friends are usually just a Zoom call away.
Coping with or, more importantly, enjoying time alone may require actively developing the capacity to be alone in the first place. It can be viewed as a skill or a muscle that needs flexing. Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist and researcher of solitude, told The Atlantic, “It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does, it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.” Bowker confirms that “a person who can find a rich self-experience in a solitary state is far less likely to feel lonely when alone.”
Let’s look at some of the potential benefits of being alone, whether for a day or six weeks.
For most people, just being alone is enough to stimulate their creative process. Absent other voices, constant chatter, and the mental “overhead” of socializing in public, our brains are free to wander. There’s a reason “shower thoughts” are a thing. Just being alone for 10-15 minutes while your subconscious focuses on menial tasks like rinsing your hair can foster creativity. In the face of weeks of isolation, embrace that lack of socializing head-on. Use it to tackle the creative things you never seem to have time for: write a novel, learn a new language, teach yourself to cook, or take an overnight solo camping trip. Examine all the things you promised yourself you’d do someday. Pick one, and do it.
This seems like the most obvious benefit of being alone. Without the distraction of others, you have all the time in the world to do the things you want or need to do. This, of course, requires focus. Without a significant other or friend to hold you accountable, it’s easy to spend your free time alone on pointless exercises (see also the wild popularity of Tiger King).
With friends and loved ones around, most of us tend to shift our priorities to what others need. If your living situation provides precious little alone time, your needs and desires might disappear into the background. Being alone allows time to focus on yourself, to prioritize you. It also frees you from worrying about what other people think about what you’re doing.
In groups, humans can fall victim to a social phenomenon called “social loafing.” In the company of other people, we tend to focus less and spend minimal effort on memorizing information. This is because we anticipate that others in the group will make decisions, remember details, or keep tabs on the conversation to help “fill in the gaps.” In isolation, we have no one to fall back on but ourselves, which can ultimately improve memory and concentration.
For a comprehensive guide to embracing your alone time, check out our tips for staying physically and mentally well in isolation.
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