The key to happiness: Spending time alone

BY Lara Williams

1st Jan 2015 Wellbeing

The key to happiness: Spending time alone

A recent survey found over half of Brits have never been to a live music event or visited theme park on their own—and would be unwilling to do so. However, it is increasingly believed there are manifest mental health benefits in enjoying time spent alone.

The market research firm YouGov surveyed over a thousand Brits to find out what activities they are least likely to go to alone; with music gigs, theme parks, on holiday and sporting events proving to be the least favourable solo activities.

While most were happy to go shopping or for a walk alone, it seems activities traditionally enjoyed as part of a social or romantic occasion, such as the cinema or to a restaurant for dinner, inspired greater anxiety.

With an increased understanding of mindfulness and how this can boost your mental health, there is now more of an appreciation of the psychological gains to be found in actively engaging with a little solitude.


Mental health benefits

spend some time alone mental health

Dr. Libby Watson, a Clinical Psychologist at the University of London, believes there are many benefits to be found in engaging in time alone.

"Alone time can be restorative and replenishing, providing psychological benefits in terms of stress reduction, understanding the self, and in identifying triggers of stress and other harmful states."

Watson believes being alone allows you the space for reflection, allowing you to make sense of any negative behaviour patterns, such as drinking or overeating. We have become accustomed to what she terms "high sensory environments"; a stressful and demanding work / life balance. Time spent consciously alone allows us to decompress and re-establish a feeling of control over our environment.

"Protecting time for self-reflection and adopting a mindful approach can lead to an enhanced sense of wellbeing. It can also be effective in preventing relapse into depression."


How to enjoy time alone

how to enjoy time alone

Watson believes the timing and nature of moments spent alone are key to enjoying a more meaningful experience of solitude.

If you are thinking about experimenting with some conscious alone time, you might need to consider the sort of activities you are likely to enjoy alone. More naturally introverted or extroverted people will benefit from slightly different experiences. 

"Those higher in introversion are likely to already be comfortable with alone time. But, for those who are more extroverted, I would recommend solitary activities that involve the presence of others, such as being alone in the company of others, for example in a coffee shop or a busy shopping centre. Or even in recreating the presence of others through listening to the radio, music or imagining others who foster a sense of belonging in the person."


Knowing yourself

know thyself

Dr. Jackie Black, PhD, BCC is a relationship coach, who encourages couples to experiment with moments of solitude, in order to get their relationship back on track. Seems counter-intuitive? Not so, as Black believes by experiencing moments of solitude you are able to experience the self-knowledge a healthy relationship requires.

"People often do not have an opportunity to have a dialogue with themselves. And if we cannot connect with ourselves, how can we connect with others?"

Black feels there is an anxiety around spending time alone, due to a blurring of understanding between time spent consciously alone, and loneliness.

"People worry about eating alone, or visiting the cinema alone, as they presume others will suspect there is something wrong with them, because they are participating in a communal activity solo. But loneliness is not necessarily about being alone. It is the absence of meaningful contact. It is about feeling unwanted or uncared for. Chosen solitude is not an extension of that."


Experimenting with solitude

walking alone park

Black believes the remedy for feeling nervous about spending time alone is to simply ask yourself "what’s so bad about it?"; to access and deconstruct the core of your anxiety. She suggests starting small.

"Spend five minutes sat in a park, watching people go by, engaging with your surroundings. Then spend ten minutes. Increase it more and more. Experiment with doing other activities alone."

Spending time alone can strengthen the bonds you share with other people, not least within a romantic relationship. It can be an affirmation that you have chosen to spend time with a person, and not that you are around them simply for fear of being alone.


Grabbing coffee alone


Lisa Kelly, a Services Manager at Manchester University, enjoys the freedom and calm of spending time alone.

"One of my favourite things to do by myself is go for coffee. There is something about being in the warm, indifferent atmosphere of a quietly busy cafe. The indistinguishable murmurs of conversation are the perfect backdrop for me if I want to write and contemplate something."

Kelly is also fond of travelling alone, enjoying months-long stretches of travel, and short, sweet city breaks, solo.

"I get to plan and be spontaneous to the exact degree that it works for me. When I arrive I have the flexibility to go where I like and indulge my whims. Even if I mostly read my book or just sit on the beach, the point is that I’m not doing it for anyone else."

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