Why spending time alone makes us happy

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No man is an island but just as we thrive on human contact and relationships, so too can we flourish from time spent alone. And this, perhaps, becomes especially relevant right now because we’re all in isolation.

We’ve long stigmatised those who choose to be alone but solitude shouldn’t be confused with loneliness.

While the latter is a negative state of mind, spending time alone is an enriching choice – a decision to explore the self and stimulate the mind. It’s about personal revival and growth. Now, whilst isolation might not be your choice, how you frame it can be.

Here are three psychological reasons why spending time in solitude makes us happier and more fulfilled:

Benefit #1: Spending time alone reconnects us

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Our aptitude for solitude may be evolutionary, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2016.

Using what they call “the Savannah theory of happiness”, evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Norman Li of Singapore Management University believe that the solitary, hunter-gather lifestyle of our ancestors form the foundation of what makes us happy in modern times.

The team analysed a survey of 15,000 people aged between 18 and 28 in the United States. They found that people living in more densely populated areas were significantly less happy than those who lived in smaller communities.

“The higher the population density of the immediate environment, the less happy” respondents were.

The researchers believe this is because we have evolved psychologically from a time when humankind mostly existed on remote, open savannahs. We have a long-ingrained tendency to be happy alone, although modern life mostly works against that.

And, as icing on the cake, they found that the more intelligent a person was, the more they enjoyed spending time alone.

So, solitude makes you happier AND is proof of your smarts. We’re in.

Benefit #2: Spending time alone teaches us empathy

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Spending a certain amount of time alone can generate more empathy towards others, according to a landmark study from Harvard.

Researchers found that when we’re surrounded by large groups of people, it’s more difficult for us to gain perspective and tune into the feelings of others.

But once we step outside that context, the additional headspace means we are able to sympathise with the plight of people around us in a more sincere and profound way.

And that’s good news, not only for other people, but because multiple studies show that empathy and helping others is a major route to wellbeing and personal fulfillment.

“When you spend time with a certain circle of friends or your co-workers, you develop a ‘we vs. them’ mentality,” explains psychotherapist and author Amy Morin. “Spending time alone helps you develop more compassion for people who may not fit into your ‘inner circle.’

“If you aren’t used to solitude, it can feel uncomfortable at first,” she adds. “But creating that quiet time for yourself could be key to becoming the best version of yourself.”

Benefit #3: Spending time alone develops resilience

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If there’s one strength that can really help in life, it’s tenacity and the ability to bounce back from challenges.

Others may not always be around to help you, so if you spend more time alone, you learn to rely on your own internal resources to get you through different situations.

“We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define [ourselves]. In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within,” says Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic theorist and solitude researcher.

“You have to have that capacity: the ability to know that you’re gonna survive, that you’re gonna be okay if you’re not supported by this group.”

Being alone will develop your capacity for resilience and self-reliance, in other words. But you have to work this muscle in order for it to work for you.

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“Being alone helps you become more comfortable in your own skin,” Morins tells Forbes. “When you’re by yourself, you can make choices without outside influences. And that will help you develop more insight into who you are as a person.”

Holding this degree of self-awareness and resilience is key to a happier life. So, the next time you’re mulling over some alone time – go for it.

As Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and author of the book Alone In America, puts it:

“There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city… and experience a feeling of freedom.”

Spending time alone: how to do it

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Spending time alone is not actually the easiest thing in the world: especially if you live a hectic life that is caveated by people and demands. But doing so is a great way to practise setting limits, as well as carving out time just for you. Here’s how:

Learn how to say no

Helping other people is great but there won’t be room in your life for everything. Spending time alone will require you to look at your schedule and work out which commitments in your life really matter, versus those you can swerve on to reclaim a few rare moments to yourself.

Embrace the boredom

As we heard earlier – if you’re not used to spending lots of time alone, it may feel a little strange at first. Not everyone likes the idea of being stranded with their own thoughts. But you should resist the temptation to fill the gaps by reaching for your phone, and instead just roll with it. You’ll soon start to enjoy it.

Experiment with new things

Being alone is a good opportunity to stretch yourself, and try on new sides of your personality: abilities or facets that you may not have been aware of previously. Lean into the chance to test your limits, whether that’s dining out alone in a decadent restaurant, or trying solo travel for the very first time.

Try travelling alone

Speaking of which, one of the best ways to spend time alone is to travel alone. When you solo travel, you are physically putting space between you and the things that define you in everyday life. So it really is a golden window to have one-on-one time, without the comforts or distractions you’d normally reach for. And remember, if you want to ease yourself in, you can always try travelling with a group of like-minded strangers.

Images: Flash Pack, Shutterstock, Mick Haupt and Simon Migaj on Unsplash

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