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The Secret Benefit of Being Alone

Research shows that "me time" is not just a luxury, but a necessity.

thanai asawaroengchai/Shutterstock
thanai asawaroengchai/Shutterstock

Often, when we choose to do something by ourselves, we encounter lots of questions and opposition from friends and peers. Being alone is often perceived as negative. Humans are innately social creatures, and when it comes to how we spend our time, we often subconsciously interpret this social tendency as an expectation — of others and of ourselves.

But a growing body of research suggests that solitude actually carries a slew of well-being benefits, from increased self-confidence and creativity to better rest.

“There is such pressure to be social in our culture that we forget that being alone is also necessary for our mental health and well-being,” Margarita Azmitia, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, tells Thrive. “The mindfulness movement is an example of how one can use solitude to relieve stress and ‘take a moment’ that results in increased well-being — and we have research evidence of this.”

Azmitia recently co-published a study that concluded that solitude, when it’s a choice, can be incredibly restorative and educational. The study points out that knowing how to be alone with yourself is a skill, and when it is intentionally developed — especially from an early age — it can contribute to positive growth, self acceptance, and self awareness. Its effects even extend to greater memory retention and increased creativity.

“Our research shows that adults — from college students to old age — benefit from and enjoy time alone. Many great discoveries or insights emerged while people took time to ‘unplug’ from the social world, their phones, their email, and went on a walk; these were not planned moments, but rather, our mind having the opportunity to think without having to be mindful of others or our many responsibilities,” she tells Thrive.

Virginia Thomas, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Wilmington College and lead researcher on a recent study with Azmitia about the relationship between teens and solitude, agrees.

“Solitude is a crucial element for being creative, and for engaging in spiritual contemplation,” Thomas tells Thrive.

It also promotes better rest.

“Solitude helps adults recover from cognitively demanding work lives, as well as the multiple social demands placed on them by family, co-workers, clubs, and other groups they are involved with,” Thomas says.

The world’s largest survey on rest attests to this. Eighteen-thousand people across 134 countries ranked activities according to how restful they are, and the results showed a definite trend: The top “most restful” activities were those most often done independently, including reading, spending time in nature, and being alone.

Interestingly, this response was shared by introverts (people who gain energy from being alone) and extroverts (people who gain energy from socializing) — showing that across the board, our minds and bodies benefit from a little solo time.

“Adults often emerge from solitude feeling calmer, more focused, more connected, and better able to respond to others. It’s one of the best medicines for our extremely busy lives,” Thomas tells Thrive.

Unfortunately, today’s interconnected world doesn’t always carry built-in opportunities to enjoy time alone — meaning that it’s necessary to create this space for ourselves. Here are some expert-backed tips to incorporate mindful solitude into your daily life.

Listen to your body

“Many of us have warning signals that tell us when we are overstimulated and have had too much social interaction. You may feel grumpy, or overly irritated by others, or you find you can’t concentrate or think straight. Pay attention to those signals because they are telling you that you need some time to yourself to rest, restore, and rejuvenate,” Thomas says.

These signals look different for everyone. Listen to what your mind and body are calling for, and soon you’ll be able to quickly pinpoint your own cues, which will lead you to either be with others or spend some more time alone.

Schedule solitude into your day

It’s easy to let tasks fall to the wayside when they seem optional. After all, we only have so much time in the day, and it makes sense to allocate that time to what we perceive as most important. However, self-care is a priority, and you can treat it like one by scheduling it as you would an important meeting or appointment.

“Schedule your alone time based on your own rhythms and responsibilities. For some of us, early morning is best, for others, late at night — but practice it every day,” Azmitia suggests.

Choosing a time of day that resonates most with you, or fits most easily into your schedule, will help you get the most out of your time and actually stick to the practice.

Fill your alone time with joy

Capitalize on the benefits of solitude by filling your time alone with activities that make you smile. Just a few minutes spent engaging in an action that brings you joy — for example, walking in nature, cooking a delicious meal, or reading a book — can improve your mood and reduce stress.

“Once you have your time to yourself, don’t squander it. Scrolling through social media or binge-watching Netflix shows may be all that you feel you have the energy for, but the benefits of solitude really seem to come from reconnecting with you,” Thomas says. “Spending your solitude in these types of activities is what makes alone time truly beneficial.”

Bonus: You’ll reap the positive effects in the form of increased productivity and creativity once you go back to work!

Stand by your decision — even if others “don’t get it”

It can be tough to say no to friends or loved ones, especially if the reason for declining plans is to spend time alone. However, if you feel that your body and mind is craving solitude, it’s important to listen.

“Getting your ‘me’ time may require you to negotiate with significant others in your life — say, your spouse or your children — to take an evening to yourself, or to skip a social obligation. When you come back from your solitary time feeling happy and rejuvenated, you might be surprised how willing they are to give you some time off the next time you need it!” Thomas tells Thrive.

Azmitia agrees.

“Don’t feel like you have to explain to others why you need solitude — it’s your own choice, and they probably need the time alone also,” she says.

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