I was a junior in college when I went to see Dear John by myself. It was the first time I’d been to a theater alone, if only because the movie trailer suggested I would ugly-cry like all get-out. The fewer people who see me in that state, the better.
As willing as I was to fly solo, I “just knew” it would be a terrible time. I “knew” that not having a friend to talk to during the previews or feel awkwardly comforted by when I lost control of my tear ducts was going to make for an experience I’d deny ever happening later. So imagine my surprise when I not only enjoyed myself, but I did it all over again the next month. And I didn’t stop there.
It’s just me, my thoughts, no small talk, and some pasta. It’s perfect.
My newfound appreciation (dare I say preference) for alone time made its way to restaurants and concert venues. Sure, I would bring a book or a barely-checked Twitter feed to focus my attention away from sad-eyed strangers wondering if I had friends or was being stood up—but those fell away when I realized I didn’t care (much) about what people might be thinking.
Now, instead of feeling embarrassed by the idea of showing up someplace alone, I feel empowered. It’s just me, my thoughts, no small talk, and some pasta. It’s perfect.
And I'll let you in on a little secret: Alone time—even when it involves missing out on social events or activities—is also, apparently, good for us all.
The Need to Know
Time alone is technically known as solitude, or the time you spend getting to know yourself Solitude experiences: varieties, settings, and individual differences. Long, C.R., Seburn, M., Averill, J.R., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 2003;29(5):578-83. . It can be tough to embrace a desire for solitude as a normal, healthy thing, given that society tends to favor extroverts (or people who thrive on socializing and activities), and some science shows being outgoing is a greater indicator for happiness. Then there’s social media, which is all about the power of social interaction. Take all these factors together, and it's no wonder solitude gets the short end of the stick.
Yet there can be so much joy in these solo hours—or what blogger Anil Dash first dubbed JOMO (joy of missing out) in a popular blog post nearly two years ago. Put another way, JOMO is the opposite of FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s relishing alone time, letting go of needing to be “in the know,” and unplugging from emails, text, social networks, and events in an effort to embrace solitude and cultivate one’s relationship to one’s own self.
If solitude hasn’t ranked towards the top of your to-do list lately, intentionally spending time alone might sound, well, boring. But not all boredom is created equal. Daydreaming, for example, promotes creativity, while a lull in external stimulation can encourage us to go after our goals. Meanwhile, research shows that alone time can also boost cognitive power and overall wellbeing, with some of the best ideas and work coming from a quiet, inner place.
Regularly enjoying some alone time is just as important for our overall health as hitting the gym or cooking up a healthy dinner.
Perhaps most importantly, solitude allows us to engage in what psychologist Anders Ericsson calls Deliberate Practice. It's easier to turn our focus inwards, and resolve (or refine) personal problems and behaviors, when there are no distractions. And the insight gained from this practice is what Ericsson says is the key to exceptional achievement and success Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: a general overview. Ericcson KA. Academy Emergency Medicine. 2008 Nov;15(11):988-94. .
The takeaway? Taking breaks from constant connectivity to enjoy some alone time is just as important for our overall health as hitting the gym or cooking up a healthy dinner.
Your Action Plan
Solo movies and meals are certainly one way to ease into spending more time alone, but there are a thousand ways to solitude (as seen in the amazing video above). For beginners to well-seasoned enjoyers of solitude, here’s how to uncover the joy of missing out.
1. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable at first.
Even if solitude appeals to you, it’s something certain personality types (read: introverts) may feel more comfortable doing by default. If you’re less sure about spending time alone, start small. Try sitting quietly for 10 minutes or not bringing your phone along for a 15-minute walk—hey, it’s a start! It’s also helpful to choose activities you enjoy, whether it’s sitting outside in the grass or doing yoga, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
2. Bring along "safety blankets."
Books, phones, and even a notebook and pen are all things you can bring to the literal table when practicing solitude. By focusing on what’s in front of you, you’re less likely to worry about onlooking strangers and what they might be thinking about you. As you get more comfortable, you may feel the need to leave these blankets at home. But there’s no rush or rule that says it’s not really solitude if you have them with you (especially non-tech “blankets”). Again, start small. While it’s ideal to spend time alone without access to social media, take some baby steps if you need ‘em by bringing along the tech gadgets the first few times you venture out solo.
3. Take a seat at the bar.
Having someone wait on you in a dining room full of other people’s friends and families can be intimidating—so take a seat at the bar instead. Not only can it be a more comfortable choice for first time solo diners, but you’ll notice how many other people are also there to enjoy a drink or a meal alone.
4. Schedule solitude every day.
Once solitude starts to feel more comfortable, pencil it in every day the way you would exercise or a lunch date, says Cain. This keeps you accountable to your self.
5. Unplug throughout the day.
You can’t reap the benefits of solitude if your phone is notifying you of every new email, or text, or snap. Similarly, sitting quietly doesn’t mean silently scrolling through your Twitter feed. Once you’ve graduated from the “baby steps” phase, try to remove that stimulation for a few minutes, hours, or even a whole day at a time—whether it’s leaving your phone in another room or turning it off completely—so that you can really focus and reflect on your own.
Meditation is a particularly great way to practice solitude, and it can be accomplished in as little as 60 seconds a day. Research finds the practice also relieves stress, benefits the brain, and may reduce risk for heart attack and stroke. Not used to meditating? We’ve got 10 unexpected ways to get started.
7. Experiment with what works for you.
Reading a book in the park? Great. Venturing out of town with a perfectly-crafted playlist to attend a local book fair? Equally great, if not even better. Once a solitary comfort zone is established, upping the ante can enrich your experience. It also gives you the opportunity to explore and discover what you truly love to do, and to find value in what you’ve already been doing.
8. Believe like Bukowski.
Author Charles Bukowski once wrote that “isolation is a gift.” And he’s right. The creative and reflective power that comes from solitude is worth the break from social media and group outings. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever spend time with your friends and family, just that it’s important to remember that spending time with yourself can be just as joyous. So let yourself enjoy, and be grateful for all that alone time gives you.