Here’s a quote from Audrey Hepburn on being alone.
I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.
The year was 1960. As was tradition, almost three quarters of a million Americans were preparing to head to American’s vacation playground, Europe, that summer. Thanks to the feminism movement that was gaining ground, the count of travelers included several women traveling alone. Marie Weltzien, owner of the Marie-Britt Travel service, had some words of encouragement for these solo women travelers.
Don’t be too self-conscious about being alone. The eyes of the world are not on you. It isn’t considered strange to see an American woman by herself in Europe and she is only conspicuous when she acts a little too eager for company or seems unable to cope with situations.
In retrospect, Ms. Weltzien’s words of advice are as widely relevant to almost all of us today as they were back then.
The idea of being alone, or choosing to spend time in solitude, may seem unusual or outright scary to many of us, especially given the hyper-connected nature of the world we live in. That’s because we tend to mistakenly equate solitude with loneliness.
Being alone is not the same as loneliness
Loneliness is failed solitude.
There’s a simple difference between loneliness and solitude.
Loneliness does not necessarily require you to be physically or even mentally alone. You can have a thousand social media fans, or a nation full of Twitter followers and yet feel lonely. The feeling of loneliness is subjective. It’s one of isolation or disconnect, often stemming from a lack of meaningful connections or a sense of belonging.
On the other hand, being alone is a state of physical or emotional solitude, where you can enjoy your own company without feeling lonely. In real solitude, you are engaged with yourself or an activity when time often seems to be at a standstill.
Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone, and solitude expresses the glory of being alone. Paul Tillich.
Loneliness can feel sad and agonizing, solitude, on the other hand, can feel blissful. But more importantly, there is magic in the power of being alone.
Benefits of solitude
If you are lonely when alone, you are in bad company. Jean Paul Sartre.
A break from people-pleasing
When we are with others, there’s a constant obligation to act and be a certain way. As a result, we lose our authenticity in the process because we are too eager to please. Being alone can be freeing in the sense that it gives us a break from being people pleasers.
In his collection of essays What Are People For? author Wendell Berry says, “The best cure for people-pleasing is to take time for yourself when you are the only one you need to please.”
Solitude gives us the time to be free from judgment and others’ demands. I’m sure you’ll agree—the freedom of being unobserved is one of the greatest freedoms.
It is in solitude that I have made the greatest discoveries about myself. Louisa May Alcott.
It is hard to reflect on our own experiences and learn from our mistakes if we’re constantly surrounded by external noise. Solitude grants us the space needed to introspect, which is the first step towards insight.
Being alone gives you the power to reinvent yourself. Sylvia Plath.
Often, we find people in creative professions such as writers, artists, inventors, etc. credit their most significant breakthroughs to the power of solitude. When we are alone, our minds are free to wander, and not constrained by our environment. The brain explores new ideas and makes unexpected connections.
Focus and Productivity
Solitude fosters an environment conducive to deep work and heightened focus. If nothing else, for this reason alone, it is imperative we build in some alone time into our schedules—just to get things done.
Solitude is not the absence of company, but the moment when our soul is free to speak to us. Paulo Coelho.
Our desire for constant company and stimulation stems a fear of being alone with our thoughts. But getting into a relationship, or signing up for sports, or volunteering, for instance, because you don’t want to be alone is not helpful in the long run.
By embracing solitude, we can let go of the constant need for outside validation.
When we spend time alone, we foster a deeper connection with ourselves. It allows us to explore our inner thoughts, emotions, and desires and enables us to cultivate a sense of self.
Rediscovering simple pleasures
Probably the best benefit of being alone is that it allows us to reconnect with small but significant life moments such as savoring a cup of tea, getting lost in a book, or going out on that long run. And, every time we indulge in a little treat for ourselves, we renew not just our spirits, but a sense of appreciation and wonder for the world around us.
So, how do we learn to be alone?
How to embrace being alone?
In a 2019 study, psychologists established that teens and young adults who intrinsically spent time being alone were happier and showed higher levels of well-being compared to those who were forced to be alone because of external circumstances. In other words, if you choose solitude, you’re happier, but if it’s forced upon you, then not so much.
Another more recent cross age-group study result unequivocally states:
Solitude—the state of being alone and not physically with another—can be rewarding.
Practicing solitude needn’t be that hard.
Set aside pockets of time each day to tune out the noise (and technology) so you can contemplate and reflect. Mindfulness Meditation is a wonderful way to practice being alone with our thoughts. No one says it will be easy, but everyone agrees it’s worth the effort.
Solitude is strength; to depend on the presence of the crowd is weakness. The man who needs a mob to nerve him is much more alone than he imagines. Paul Brunton.
According to a report, controversial Irish singer Sinead O Connor O’Connor’s remote cottage in Ireland, is deliberately furnished with uncomfortable chairs so her visitors don’t stay for too long. Ms. O’Connor reportedly said, “I’m lucky, because I enjoy my own company.”
It’s okay to love seeing others, but it’s also okay to feel good when others leave you alone for a little while.
As we grow older, an intrinsic need for solitude rises. Thankfully, our people-pleasing tendencies tend to diminish at the same time, making it easier to choose between what we want to do and what we’re expected to do.
Being alone can be transformative, and it isn’t just for introverts. Every single one of us can benefit from the power of solitude because, according to philosopher Rousseau,
Periods of solitude purge us of vanity and make us fit for human company.