Society puts a lot of pressure on us to stay socially active and focus on work, which means less time for ourselves. So in a world where individualism is hailed, why is solitude seen with suspicion?
Here are some of the resources from the show:
Sara Maitland speaks at the Radboud Reflects seminar:
Jane Mathews speaks at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2019:
Here is the trailer for Wild with Reece Witherspoon:
Books looked at this week:
Sara Maitland: How to Be Alone
Jane Mathews: The Art of Living Alone and Loving It: Your inspirational toolkit for a whole and happy life
Olivia Laing: The Lonely City
PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.
Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.
Welcome to episode 19 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.
We’ve traditionally been told that being alone is a bad thing. Some parents would even encourage their kids to play with others even if they just wanted to read a book. As an adult not much is different. And if you listened to the last episode, we discovered being alone is actually a natural part of being an introvert. So what are the benefits of solitude?
British novelist and feminist Sara Maitland has written a number of books on her experiences in sociology. How To Be Alone looks at today’s socially focused culture that leaves us unprepared for times when we need to be alone.
Here she is at the Radboud Reflects seminar in the Netherlands four years ago.
The book shows solitude is an immensely powerful and positive thing. Those of us who truly experience it, can be, in fact, far healthier and more relaxed than the rest of us. But this doesn’t mean that we should dump our friends and partners in favor of a lonely existence. There is a happy medium.
Maitland says these days, society puts a lot of pressure on us to stay socially active and focus on work, which means less time for ourselves. And yet, alone time can improve your personal well-being and creativity.
That’s because, first of all, spending time alone allows you to discover your real “self.” When you’re alone, you can focus on a deeper understanding of who you are and what matters to you. Only by spending time alone, free of outside influences, can you discover these important parts of yourself. This includes unlocking your creativity. Influential authors such as Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, and actress Greta Garbo all chose to live solitary lives while allowing their creativity to blossom.
One of the best ways to find seclusion is to escape from the city and enter nature. When you’re completely alone, and you focus your attention on the natural environment around you, you’ll start to feel united with nature. This connection with nature is a beautiful and even mystical experience.
People who have had this beautiful experience call it transcendence, or an interaction with something that goes beyond the conscious mind.
In Australia for example, young Aborigines are sent on a walkabout: a six-month period of solitude meant to prepare them for adulthood. In many cultures throughout history, spending time alone has been considered necessary for the transition into adult society.
Unfortunately modern culture finds it threatening when people choose a lifestyle of solitude. If people support unique individuality, why is it considered suspicious for someone to choose being alone as a means of self-discovery?
In his book Solitude, philosophy professor Philip Koch found that due to human evolution finding success through companionship, people have an inherent reaction to solitude as being unnatural.
Maitland says ultimately, these views are an unfair social stigma. If one desires the freedom of solitude, they should embrace it. After all, the problems of society don’t have to influence your own pursuit of happiness.
The trick for beginning that journey is to first identify any fears you might have in being alone. Sometimes, if we tell ourselves we want time alone but never seem to find it, it might be due to a subconscious fear of being alone. You can overcome these fears by simply giving yourself small doses of alone time that test your comfort levels such as lingering in a bath, or sitting by yourself in a park or garden.
One simple way is to spend more time focused on solitary activities you already enjoy that doesn’t involve concentrating on others such as listening to music and that person’s singing. Maitland says a better solution is to take solitary walks in nature or running. As I mentioned last week, I’ve extensively travelled alone, and Maitland adds by spending valuable time with yourself you can develop your sense of fulfillment and learn from your own experiences.
While doing this, it’s important to realize that solitude isn’t dangerous or scary. History actually shows us that it’s not harmful. British-born Tibetan Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo lived in a cave for 12 years from 1976. She remained healthy and accepting and welcoming of others.
Maitland says we can also get our safe alone time back through daydreaming. Psychologist Donald Winnicott has traced our adult ability to enjoy solitude back to when we were infants. During this time of early childhood, we could feel content to be alone after our basic needs, like being fed, were met by our parents. In these situations, we felt safe and secure, and free to wander around on our own and explore our surroundings.
Unfortunately, as we grow older we no longer have the security and freedom of such moments. But it doesn’t have to stay this way. We can get our safe alone time back by learning how to engage with our active imagination and daydreaming. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung would call examining his subconscious active imagination or reverie, where he would write memories, dreams, and thoughts down in a notebook. He figured out which thoughts would make him happy through analysing his meanderings.
However, the division between extroverts and introverts is nearly impossible to test given that most people will respond differently depending on the context. Hence it’s up to you to determine how big or small your dose of alone time should be.
Our second book is by author and Australian marketing expert Jane Mathews. The Art of Living Alone and Loving It: Your inspirational toolkit for a whole and happy life looks at how to embrace life and living alone through positive thinking and a proactive mindset. Here she is at the 2019 Happiness and Its Causes conference in Sydney.
Mathews says the most important part of being alone is taking control. Fully acknowledge all the problems and challenges you face, and develop plans to overcome them. Combine this with the all-powerful tool of positive thinking, and you’ll be well on your way to being a successful “soloist.”
For Mathews, her solo life began after she and her husband unexpectedly split up. Even though she hated it at first, she eventually found that it was no longer a negative experience. Don’t let the stigma around living alone stop you from making the most of it.
If you live alone, it’s important to remember that while you’re a “soloist” in a literal sense, in another, you’re not alone at all. In fact, you’re part of a rapidly growing demographic of almost 300 million people around the world who are living alone these days. Mathews now refers to living by herself as living with herself.
However enjoying life alone requires mental strength. Being proactive means needing planning skills, self-confidence, and mental fortitude.
So where to begin? She says start by defining the person you want to be. Write down three adjectives that you would like to define you. And then simply act like that! Essentially fake it until you make it.
The next step is to acknowledge something that everyone who lives alone has to deal with: loneliness. Simply put, it’s part of the experience. Living alone means that you will, at some point, feel lonely. But you don’t have to let loneliness define you. Learn what triggers those lonely feelings, and then either avoid those situations or plan ahead so that you’re prepared for when it hits you. Better still, stop thinking of your overall experience as loneliness. Think of it instead as solitude – a similar word that lacks the negative connotations.
Most importantly, develop a sense of purpose – what the Japanese call an “ikigai.” This might sound daunting, but having a sense of purpose is a great way to develop a positive mindset. Think carefully about what you enjoy doing, what you’re good at, and what you truly want your life to be about – then find an activity that ticks all of those boxes. Having something you’re truly passionate about is a great way to focus your mind and stave off negative feelings. The great thing about being a “soloist” is that you get to spend your time finding out what truly makes you happy.
Mathews adds all your relationships change when you live alone – including the one that you have with yourself. While friends are invaluable, the person you spend the most time with is yourself. And that’s the relationship you need to prioritize. Learning to value and love yourself is fundamental to happiness, and an importanpt first step in maintaining other relationships, too.
One way to do this is to keep what the author calls a “self-esteem scrapbook.” You can fill it with messages from friends, and anything else that puts a smile on your face. I guess I have this in the form of a positive memory bank, which is screenshots of nice messages. Again you’re not running off into the wild and being a hermit, so keeping in touch with important people is necessary but don’t depend on someone else for happiness.
As a soloist, you have to take complete responsibility for your own health. Even though a Brigham Young University study showed that living alone actually increased the risk of death by as much as 32 percent mostly due to neglecting oneself, this is in your hands to change. So eating healthy and exercising can be done without someone else pushing you on. Its all about scheduling it in and sticking to it.
Just like with your health, if you live alone, you need to take financial matters into your own hands, and you’ll need to start with a detailed financial blueprint. So understanding how you feel about money and what does financial security look like for you? Only then can you seize control and take positive, proactive steps forward.
Also, never underestimate the power your home has on affecting your mood. You spend enough time there, after all. If you live alone, you have the opportunity to create a space that’s perfectly attuned to you. So make the most of it! This also means keeping your space tidy and investing in a great bed and pillows.
And very importantly don’t be afraid to get out there and do things by yourself. Like Maitland, Mathews recommends travelling alone. I can vouch for this, I tend to wander off into a gallery or just sit and watch the world go by with a coffee whilst travelling. I spent five years living alone in my flat, and it was glorious having my sanctuary. These are definite privileges I do not take for granted. But in small ways cooking, painting, and reading are good solitary activities. Or just sitting and relaxing with your thoughts. It’s a good way of getting in touch with your spiritual side .
A serious honorable mention goes to Olivia Laing’s incredible book The Lonely City. Not only do the words jump off the page like “Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation.” But also the book describes her own journey of breaking free from the prison of loneliness by exploring the lives of notable people such as Virginia Woolf, artist Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol. I loved this book so much that it goes into my hall of fame of favourite books of all time.
So to sum up
Maitland says in How To Be Alone that in a society that values freedom and individualism, you should not be afraid to execute your right to solitude. There are numerous benefits and joys of solitude. Discover who you are, connect with mother nature and enhance your creativity by simply being alone. Start small and simple.
When you’re tempted to find some time alone but unsure where to start, think about expanding something you already like to do, like a bike ride or a visit to your local café. Then think about making this activity 15 to 30 minutes longer while focusing on your individual experience. You might be surrounded by people but you’ll be at peace with your solitude.
Mathews explains in The Art of Living Alone and Loving It that even though it’s still uncommon for people to choose to live alone, being a soloist can nevertheless be hugely rewarding. By seizing control of all the important aspects of your life – from your health to your finances – you can turn your solo life into an enriching and uplifting experience. And most importantly, you can truly get to know yourself.
I’m trying to find alone time in lockdown which reminded me of the film Wild, originally written by Cheryl Strayed who decided to start a new life by hiking along the 1,100 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail. She begins to discover herself as she goes along her trek. Here is a scene from Jean Marc Vallee’s film: