Being alone can often seem scary, or stressful — how many of us would rather be surrounded by other people, even if we’re just spending time staring at our screens? But Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century transcendental philosopher and author of Walden, a memoir of his solitary experiences and ruminations in the woods, prized his own company above all others so much so that he once said: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Still, most people yearn for space on that velvet cushion, and think solo pumpkin squatters are weird.
As someone who lives in a city bustling with 8.5 million bodies and has to shove her way on and off a mobbed subway everyday, I’m less inclined to think there’s something odd about enjoying alone time at a restaurant, movie, or museum. It might even trigger a touch of envy in me: “Ah, to be alone!” But when my mother, a super suburban 68-year-old woman with old world views visits me in NYC, I’m reminded how shattering public displays of aloneness look to many people. She’ll spot a lone diner at a restaurant we’re in and loud-whisper, “Poor man, look at him, eating alone.”
People like my mom are the reason most of us, even those who feel a tug toward solitary adventures in public spaces, resist going it alone, says Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. “They worry people will see them as losers who have no friends,” she says. Michael Harris, author of Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, agrees, adding that “the default assumption about a person alone is often that they must be an antisocial cypher.” Harris thinks our knee-jerk reaction to lone figures in social spaces extends from early human history when traveling in packs was essential to our survival and evolution. “A primate without a pack may well have been seen as an outcast with violent tendencies,” he says.
But it’s time to move past that primal angst. Reap the rewards of time with yourself by partaking in these four activities:
1.Plan a trip with yourself
One of the many advantages — and ironies — of traveling alone is that you’ll be compelled to reach out and connect with fellow travelers or local residents, which will invite new perspectives into your life.
It also gives you the opportunity to explore parts of your identity you may not have the courage to explore in your everyday life, like wearing clothes you wouldn’t normally. I’ve often seriously contemplated driving to an unfamiliar town to don a daring ensemble — for me high heels, a short skirt and gobs of make-up — just to see how differently I’d be perceived and treated. (If I did that anywhere near my hometown, my friends and family would lock me up real fast.)
For Jennifer Velez, a 29-year-old digital marketer from Jersey City, NJ, her first solo trip ever (to North Carolina) made her feel unconquerable and boosted her confidence: “Seeing my adventurous side come out made me feel that I could take on any situation all on my own if I needed to, which was really empowering and freeing.”
While the company of a lover or friend is deeply comforting and enriching, it’s also distracting. You’ll likely absorb more about the local culture without a travel buddy, and you’ll return home with more vivid memories — ones you can then share with loved ones. “Developing a rich interior life through solitary experiences,” Harris says, “ultimately helps us bond with others.”
2. Sit alone on a park bench at a playground
As a parent of a three-year-old, I tend to seek out conversations with other moms and dads during our weekend visits to the playground, but when I’m forced to sit back and watch the amazing spectacle that is children at a play I gain far more than I do from adult chatter. Watching children climb up ladders, coast down slides, swing on monkey bars, and invent games and challenges with their pint-size friends is a good way to bring you back to your simpler self and reinvigorate your creativity. “You see a child play and it is so close to seeing an artist paint,” the German-American psychologist Erik Erikson once said, “for in play a child says things without uttering a word.”
3. Go to a movie or performance alone
Going to the movies is so deeply embedded in the popular imagination as an activity exclusive to dates and friends, it may feel a little funny to go it alone at first, but it’s got serious benefits. One, if your friends are as chatty as mine, your viewing experience will be spared random comments, questions, and errant pieces of flying popcorn throughout the film. My mom, in particular, is like a second soundtrack! The best part of the solo movie-going experience is that when the final credits roll and the lights come on, you can process the film in your own mind without the intellectual musings or critiques of a companion, which can sometimes confuse or stampede your own sense of things.
4. Be your own date at a fancy restaurant
Fine dining alone may make you shrink with fear more than any other solo activity because it is the ultimate venue for couples, but it’s got one crucial benefit that I place above all others: It’s so uncomfortable that if you can swing it, it’ll help liberate you from the stress of what other people think. Put aside your smartphone, and just live in the awesome discomfort. Observe your feelings, stare back with relish, and get to know yourself just a little bit better.