To tame solitude. Why it’s sometimes good to be alone and feel good about it

Tenderness and freedom

Choice is key

I would patiently explain to everyone that I was going alone because I wanted to, not because I had to. There were several things that pushed me to go on solo trips. I wanted to feel like a traveller, not a tourist, even if just for 10 days. I was curious if I would be able to feel safe without the chattering of my girlfriends or male support. And how would it even feel to be alone in a new place for 10 days? So, I would go and I would never regret it. A lot was happening on these solo trips of mine and I think of them as fantastic adventures! I had a choice, I made a decision, and then I made the best of this time.

Alone, but not lonely

It’s not just solo trips that can be a matter of choice. Living alone can also be a conscious choice, as opposed to something that just happens to us. It might be a decision made for life or just for some time, for example after a painful breakup, when we need peace and space.

It is difficult to determine the number of loners by choice because people are rarely asked about that in Poland. The data collected by Statistics Poland shows that seven million Poles live alone. This group includes both the elderly and high‑income singles from big cities.

Most of these individuals experience loneliness and its negative effects (including sleep problems, hypertension, depression). What about those who don’t see it as a challenge, but simply live on their own? There is no frustration or fear in them, instead there is peace and confidence in a decision well made. The positive aspects of solitude or living alone, if you will, are increasingly recognised by scientists as well.

Why are we alone?

Psychologists Virginia Thomas of Wilmington College and Margarita Azmitia of the University of California, Santa Cruz decided to see if the reasons for which we are alone affect our well‑being. They published their findings this year in the Journal of Adolescence. They asked people of different ages to complete a survey. Loners had to, for example, complete the following sentence: ‘I spend time alone because...’.

The positive responses were: ‘I like silence’, ‘I can do whatever I want’, ‘I value privacy’, ‘I can feel what I really feel’.

The negative ones were, among others: ‘I feel nervous when I am with other people’, ‘only when I am alone do I feel like myself’, ‘I often regret things I say in front of others’, ‘others don’t understand me’.

Who are happy loners?

Thomas and Azmitia also profiled the subjects to determine whether they were extroverts or introverts. They asked about sad or happy events of the past month. They were interested in their relationships with their loved ones. In short, they wanted to find out who the people who like to be alone are and who the people who are unhappy about being alone are.

And here is what they think the profile of a person that handles solitude well looks like.

Such a person chooses to spend their time this way for positive reasons, gets along with their close ones, and is often (60% of respondents) an extrovert. The respondents did not say for how long they wanted to stay alone or whether they were looking for a partner. In contrast, those who were dissatisfied with being alone chose negative survey responses. Psychologists also saw a lot of fear and anxiety in them.

‘If you spend time alone because that is what you want to do, it will most likely have a great effect on you. But if you are alone at home depressed because actually, you do want to be with other people, it is much more problematic’, wrote the authors of the study.

What are the benefits of being alone?

It is also worth clarifying what ‘most likely (...) a great effect’ means. Professor Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci of the University of Rochester examined the effects of loneliness on our well‑being.

Students were asked to spend 15 minutes a day alone for two weeks. They were not allowed to talk to anyone or use computers or phones. Then they discussed how it felt. The moments of solitude made the experienced emotions less intense. Anger, rage, or discontent would abate, as if fading away. Students felt calmer and more relaxed. They also spoke of interesting ideas that came to their minds.

Time just for me

Of course, there were people who would get sad after a quarter of an hour and even spoke of loneliness. However, there were far fewer of them than those who enjoyed it. Researchers also asked respondents about their attitude to spending time alone. The findings of Virginia Thomas and Margarita Azmitia were confirmed: our thoughts influence the way we feel when we are alone. Students who participated in the experiment because they were told to, often felt sad and angry. Those who believed that these 15 minutes would do them good ended the experiment with boosted morale.

Solitude is without a doubt a huge problem of the 21st century. It is possible to tame it, though. Or, at least, to find something good about it. It may even turn out that solitude is not as black as it is painted.


Author: Anna Woźniak


The text was published on on 4 June 2022