By Dr. Mercola
Eighty-five percent of Americans believe it’s important to have times when they are completely alone and away from anyone else, according to a recent Pew survey. Another 55 percent believe this is very important while 30 percent say it’s somewhat important.1
This desire for occasional solitude gives your body and, perhaps more importantly, your mind space and time to just be in the moment, experiencing it with your full attention and focus. It turns out alone time of this sort is highly rewarding.
If you’ve ever hesitated to spend time alone, perhaps believing you won’t enjoy it, a recent study found that people have just as good of a time engaging in fun activities alone as they do when they’re with others. The only down side came when the loners worried about how they would look to others, perhaps appearing they had no one to spend time with.2
This latter issue is easily overcome by positive thinking and directing your focus to your activities at hand and the enjoyment it brings. However, aside from enjoyment, spending time alone offers may additional benefits.
7 Top Benefits of Alone Time
What do you stand to gain simply from spending some “me time” alone? CNN recently compiled numerous benefits:3
1. Boost Creativity
Even though brainstorming is often promoted as the best way to gather ideas, research shows that people who work alone and later pool their ideas actually come up with far more ideas.4
2. Work Harder and More Efficiently
Working alone can also prompt you to work more intensely and efficiently, as you know it’s up to you to finish the task and do it well. In a group setting, most people believe they have to put in less effort since more people are involved.
3. Restore Your Energy
This is especially relevant to introverts, who feel social interactions zap their energy. Spending time alone gives you time to recharge your batteries, in a sense, so you can go back into the social scene feeling refreshed and at the top of your game.
4. Meet New People
Ironically, spending time doing activities alone is actually a great opportunity to meet others who share your interests. When you’re alone, you’re far more likely to interact with people around you, including those you may not have struck up a conversation with had you been in other company.
5. Boost Your Mood, Particularly in Teens
For teens, spending some time in solitude had a “positive after effect on emotional state,” and those who spent an intermediate amount of their time alone were better adjusted than those who spent either a little or a great deal of time alone.
The researchers concluded that solitude in adolescence can have a constructive role in daily life and offers “a strategic retreat that complements social experience.”5
6. Clear Your Mind
Spending time alone helps your mind to process information and offers time for reflection. As reported by CNN:6
"‘Constantly being 'on' doesn't give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself,’ Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D. wrote in Psychology Today. Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It's an opportunity to revitalize your mind and body at the same time."7
7. Do What You Want
When you’re alone, you can spend the day doing whatever it is you want, without worrying about others desires. So if you love to hike but your partner doesn’t, going alone gives you a chance do something you love, which we all deserve on a regular basis.
Why Some People Look Forward to Their Commute
Long commutes can be dangerous for your health in that they add additional sitting time to your day and can be quite stressful, especially if you’re in heavy traffic. However, a recent Australian study found that some people actually look forward to their commutes because it provides an opportunity for alone time. According to the report:8
“For many commuters, the journey to and from work is a necessary transition time between home and work. Some participants even described how they would actually extend their journeys in time by waiting somewhere along the route or travelling a different way.
For some, the commute home was a valuable opportunity to process work-related issues that were unwelcome at home. For others, commuting time was a valuable personal time out from responsibilities of both work and home life.
Some participants said this was the only time that they get to be themselves during the week, and so used it to dream, relax, and meditate. A distinctive advantage of public transport is the freedom that it permits for doing things that they see as ‘luxuries.’”
There were downsides to commuting reported in the study as well, but it does shed some light on the continued importance of alone time in people’s lives, even if the only alone time you get is during your morning and evening commute.
What Makes Being Alone Healthy or Harmful? Feeling Lonely
Purposefully spending time alone is quite a different phenomenon than feeling lonely. The former is defined as solitude and is often associated with getting to know your inner self, finding inner peace, and restoring and refreshing your body, mind, and soul.
The latter, loneliness, is a feeling of being disconnected from those around you and wishing you had that connection. While solitude is great for mental health, stress relief, and even building relationships, loneliness is not.
Negative emotions will invariably impact your physical well-being, and loneliness is no different. Research reveals that feeling lonely raises your blood pressure up to 14 points, with greater increases coming the more years the lonely feelings persist.9 A separate study found that the risk of developing dementia also increased about 51 percent for each one-point increase on a loneliness scale.10
What’s interesting, though, is that brain deposits that normally develop in Alzheimer’s patients were not seen among those who were lonely, indicating that the emotion triggers dementia through a different mechanism, such as higher levels of stress hormones, cancer, or high blood pressure (all of which are more likely to occur in lonely people).
Other studies have also shown that being socially isolated can cause health problems, including weakening your immune system and resulting in sleep dysfunctions.
Further, in what loneliness expert John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, described as "slowly unfolding pathophysiological processes," his research demonstrated that people who are lonely are more likely to:11
- Be depressed
- Suffer from alcoholism
- Report higher levels of perceived stress
- Have fewer positive social interactions
If You’re Lonely, Here Are Tips to Overcome It
If your “alone time” is not chosen solitude but rather a feeling of loneliness, I recommend trying to build more social relationships by:
- Exploring new hobbies and interests that ignite your natural curiosity and passions. Deep friendships naturally form among people with similar interests.
- Volunteering or joining a club or organization in your area. Book clubs, adult sports leagues, holistic moms groups, even food coops can all lead to new relationships.
- Making an effort to re-establish old relationships and cultivate new ones. This could be with family you’ve lost touch with, friends from college, or a new neighbor across the street. The Internet is also an increasingly popular way to meet new people.
- Adopting a companion pet. A dog or cat can provide unconditional love and comfort, and studies show that owning a pet can help protect against loneliness, depression, and anxiety. In fact, dogs are often brought to nursing homes, hospice settings, and hospitals for this very reason.
Meditation May Help You Enjoy Your Alone Time
For some people, the thought of completely disconnecting and being alone is a terrifying thought. In fact, when faced with a decision to sit alone in a room for up to 15 minutes or self-administer electric shocks… many chose to receive the shocks. According to the study:12
“In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
The reason for this is likely because your mind, when left with no distractions, may start to race, focus on negative thoughts, or re-live past unpleasant experiences. This is where meditation and positive thinking can be invaluable. The researchers continued:
“Research has shown that minds are difficult to control… and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”
How to Be Alone
If alone time isn’t a regular part of your day, you may wonder how you can carve out this time… and what, exactly, to do with it. You can use it for whatever you want… exercising, reading, writing, doing hobbies, meditating… anything that gives you joy and a respite from the daily grind. If you’re feeling uncertain about venturing out into the world alone, watch the video above for inspiration. If finding the time to be alone is the more pressing question, here are some simple tips:13
- Turn off distractions. Your phone, email, and TV can all interrupt your alone time.
- Get up early. An extra half hour or hour in the morning can provide a quiet time for you to invest in yourself.
- Close your door. If you work in an office, close your door, and if necessary, add a sign to it indicating you don’t want to be disturbed.
- Use your lunch hour. Take your lunch outside and eat it on a park bench or go for a solo walk.
- Schedule it. Whether it’s 15 minutes before bed or an entire day once a month, schedule alone time into your calendar so you’ll always have time for valuable solitude.