One of the biggest fears about solo travel is being lonely, but loneliness isn’t caused by independence. Sarah Freeman explains why travelling alone doesn’t need to be lonely.
Lonely: the one L-word we never want to hear or admit to.
“It is the psychological equivalent of being a loser in life, or a weak person,” the late psychologist John Cacioppo said in a TED talk, weighing in on its social shame. Loneliness isn’t boredom or a bad day. It’s a state of mind and heart. And like mental health, it isn’t prejudiced to people’s circumstances.
Not surprisingly, it’s high on the list of first-time solo travellers’ hang-ups (even seasoned wanderlusters are not immune FYI). It’s the fear of “asking for a table for one” and “spending those 11-hour-long bus journeys all on your own.”
Well, first off, the amount of time you spend ‘alone’ has less to do with being lonely than you think. You can be in a room filled with your nearest and dearest and still be lonely.
Sometimes the modern-trappings of our comfortable lives and being a slave to routine can be a far lonelier path than stepping outside of your comfort zone.
In a recent study, Britain was revealed as ‘the loneliest capital’ (sic) in Europe, with nearly nine million people in the country either often, or always, feeling loneliness. Even more telling are the demographics:
According to Global Health service Cigna, Millennials aged 23 to 37 are lonelier than Baby Boomers aged 52 to 71.
Such is the scale of this silent epidemic, the UK made political history in January by appointing a Minister of Loneliness, tasked with, well, making us all feel more connected (without the help of Mark Zuckerberg).
But if loneliness is a modern epidemic, what is it about our everyday life that’s making us lonely? With Age UK claiming that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it’s something not to be brushed under the carpet.
Interestingly, the desire to travel solo often stems from a lonely place, triggered by being unmoored after a change in circumstance. It could be a messy breakup, uprooting to a new city or shakeup in your career.
A willingness to take risks socially is something you do when travelling more than in everyday life. And real social connections (not just on social networks) are the key to averting the L-word.
It’s good to talk
As humans, we are motivated by a need to belong and wired to maintaining social bonds. Travelling requires interacting with people from all walks of life (unexpectedly sometimes) – it could be a friendly avocado vendor, your airport tuk-tuk driver or Guatemalan trekking guide.
And guess what – the more people you talk to, the richer your travel experiences.
And if striking up that awkward first conversation with your bunk bed buddy makes your palms sweat, remember, everyone started in the same boat. There are a lot of people travelling solo.
People just like you. People looking for spiritual awakening, adventure, and a human connection that has been lost in the threads of our complicated, modern lives.
Read more: 5 fears of solo travel, and how I face them
At times, you may think you are lonely, but maybe what you’re really experiencing is solitude, where you’re alone with yourself out of choice.
Although I buddied up with five other solo travellers in South Africa a few years ago, I chose to take in our last night’s fiery savannah sky on my own, finding a quiet clearing in the bush to take it all in. It was just me, the vast wilderness and a beautiful silence only broken by the hum of cicadas.
Make friends with yourself
And here’s a new perspective – the ‘alone’ aspect of travelling alone can be healthy.
Maxwell Maltz once said, “If you make friends with yourself you will never be alone.” Solo travel is one of the best ways to reconnect with yourself, so savour those times spent doing sun salutations on a deserted beach or biking solo between vineyards in Mendoza, rather than fearing them.
And if the thought of too much ‘you’ time brings you out in hives, relax, the possibilities of new friendships are everywhere. Maybe it’s on your morning stroll through the local seafood market, or trampling through a jungle in search of sloths with complete strangers.
Just ‘being alone’ makes you more approachable.
Equally important is accepting that if the ‘l’ feeling creeps in, it’s okay to acknowledge it.
Loneliness is a complex range of emotions, from anger and grief, fear and anxiety, sadness and shame. I won’t sugarcoat it, the chances are you will confront these feelings travelling solo, but usually they will be fleeting, offset by the excitement, confidence and gratitude that solo travel gifts you.
Try using these practical solo traveller tips to combat loneliness:
- Savour the taste of home (literally). Seek out the nearest Irish Pub or supermarket selling baked beans and tea bags.
Pack your rucksack with something that physically connects you with home, whether that’s a fragrance, pillowcase or photo of your dog!
- Binge watch your favourite Netflix or re-read a treasured book – a tried and tested pick-me-up.
- Start that journal! It may well reveal what is making you happy (and what isn’t) which becomes more apparent when you put pen to paper.
- Slow Down – there will be more opportunities for those serendipitous meetings when you take the ‘scenic’ three local buses route to the waterfall or hang a little longer in the hostel’s hammock.
For all these proactive steps, there is one major thing that can trip you up – your smartphone.
*Newsflash* – it turns out social media isn’t that social after all, and will likely distract you from the ‘real life’ social networking that solo travel enriches you with.
Yes, there are advantages of social media, but we’re now beginning to understand the dangers of social media, too.
University of Pennsylvania researchers say that, for the first time, they have linked social media use to increases in depression and a sense of loneliness.
And a recent study revealed the UK has more active social media accounts than any other country in Europe. Loneliness can lead us on a desperate quest to find positive affirmation from others on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, fuelling a vicious cycle of social media.
Whilst going on a full digital detox is probably counterintuitive, knowing when to switch off is the key.
Read more: Instagram and travel: finding a balance
In reality, half the battle with feeling lonely is dealing with the fear of loneliness itself. But don’t let this stand in the way of you taking the plunge and rolling solo.
You’ll be alone sometimes, you’ll be in solitude sometimes, and maybe you’ll experience pangs of loneliness. But the payoff is an indescribable sense of freedom that doesn’t just empower your travel experiences, but your life too.
Ready to give it a go? Three great places to travel solo:
Thrills and chills
Embrace your inner adventurer and find solitude in one of the Middle East’s most mythical countries, Jordan. Take sunset camel rides across Wadi Rum’s cinematic desert scapes, glamp it up in luxe tents, go canyoning in rocky ravines and float in the Dead Sea at the lowest point on earth!
Find your solo groove in Australia – a country that speaks the same lingo, is low on crime, but will still give you the travel goosebumps. Explore its East Coast – hitting up Hunter Valley’s wineries, catching waves in Byron Bay, sailing in the jewel-like Whitsunday Islands and spotting crocs in Daintree National Park.
Havana a Good Time
Latinos know how to let their hair down. Fact. For a culturally immersive experience that delivers muchos social satisfaction and a taste of the Caribbean, try Cuba. Cruise Havana’s streets in a vintage Cadillac, learn the art of rolling Cuban cigars on a traditional tobacco farm, salsa the night away in the capital, then flop on Cayo Levisa’s talcum powder beaches (mojito in hand).