The Upside of Isolation: 3 Surprising Benefits of Being Alone
Anxious about being alone? Don't be. It turns out there are a host of benefits to be had from rediscovering "me-time."
The Benefits of Being Alone
Being alone isn’t our most comfortable state. In fact, a 2011 study from Harvard University and the University of Virginia found that subjects were so averse to loneliness that they would rather receive a series of electrical shocks than be alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.
Further research suggests we’d be wise to overcome the anxiety that seems to accompany loneliness. While nobody’s advocating becoming a hermit, there are benefits of being alone—at least some of the time.
We miss out on less
For many, the idea of going to a concert or out to dinner alone sparks dread—what if other patrons think we’re social pariahs? But University of Maryland professor Rebecca Ratner believes that fear is causing us to forgo fun. “People have activities that they want to do—see a movie, or a show that’s coming to town for one night only—but they lack friends to go with them, and so they miss out,” she says.
What’s more, her research has shown that doing an activity alone isn’t any less enjoyable than taking a friend. In a study published this year, Ratner’s team recruited participants from a student union and asked them to spend at least five minutes in a nearby art gallery. Some were sent in solo, others in pairs. Participants were surveyed beforehand and asked how much they anticipated enjoying the activity. Unsurprisingly, those attending alone believed they’d have less fun. Upon leaving the gallery, however, the two groups reported enjoying themselves equally.
Here’s how one woman finally learned to enjoy dining by herself.
We’re kinder to strangers
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers completed a series of experiments to determine how being socially connected affects the way we relate to those outside of our close social groups.
In one experiment, researchers split participants into two groups. Members of the first were asked to arrive at the lab with a friend; those in the second were instructed to show up alone. Participants were divided into pairs (those who came alone were matched with strangers; the others were teamed with their friends), shown pictures and told that the images were of people responsible for a terrorist attack. Subjects then answered a number of questions, some of which were intended to measure their willingness to mistreat others, e.g., “How important is it to treat these people humanely?” Participants who’d been accompanied by a pal were significantly more likely to endorse harm than those who’d shown up alone.
Researchers hypothesized that those who spend a lot of time with close friends may be less motivated to associate with others. It’s counterintuitive, but more time spent with acquaintances might lead us to be less empathetic toward strangers.
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We become better people
According to Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, having smartphones and social media accounts at our fingertips heightens our aversion to being by ourselves. Our fears of missing out are stoked by endless photos of friends doing exciting things. We constantly need to be entertained, Klinenberg says, and as a result we’ve become alienated from what he calls “productive solitude.” (Find out more downsides of a social media addiction.)
Reflecting on our actions and thinking about future personal improvements are the cornerstones of productive solitude. Carving out time to do these things can help make us happier, stronger and more accountable. The process allows us to step back, then return to the world with more insight and energy.
“The only way we have a chance to make sense of our choices is [through] solo reflection,” Klinenberg says. “Unless you’re completely content with who you are and the way you live, productive solitude is necessary.”
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How to disconnect
Michael Harris, the Toronto-based author of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, says you can trick yourself into taking breaks from socializing. Harris suggests going for a walk and leaving your cellphone at home or taking a book to a restaurant and having dinner for one. While you might feel frustrated 20 minutes in, there’s no reneging: you’ve committed to time by yourself. (Having trouble with a “digital detox”? Here’s advice on how to kick social media addiction.)
Harris believes we should balance solitude and socializing the same way we go about maintaining a healthy diet. “Social connection is not an evil thing any more than sugars and fats are,” Harris says. “It’s not about abstinence. It’s about giving yourself multiple modes of being.” Need help achieving that balance? Don’t miss this practical advice on how to make friends as an adult.