How to Be Alone—And Be Happy About It
Australian hermit Valerio Ricetti lived alone for six years in New South Wales, happily turning a remote cave into a personal paradise replete with landscaping. Willard MacDonald beat him by a factor of ten, living alone in a shack near Gully Lake in Canada for 60 years. Most people, though, apparently can’t last six minutes alone—at least, that’s according to a new study.
Psychology researchers at the University of Virginia found that study participants did not enjoy being alone in a room, even for short times ranging from six to 15 minutes. For the study, people were asked to sit in a spartan room and to be alone with their thoughts —no cell phone, magazines, iPad, books or other distractions allowed. After their brief stint in the room, they were asked how they felt. “Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention,” the researchers wrote. “On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.” In fact, about a third of the at-home participants had to admit they cheated, giving in to the allure of a cell phone or TV.
“Kids these days,” you might be thinking. But the study participants ranged in age from 18 to 77, with the results showing up as basically the same across all age groups. So much for the idea of youthful impatience.
In another portion of the experiment, participants who sat alone were so bored, they gave themselves an electric shock—for no reason. “What is striking,” the study’s authors wrote, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock.”
Why are we so fidgety? According to the study’s Dr. Timothy Wilson, there are several reasons. First, the human mind is designed to engage with the world. Second, killing time by daydreaming or fantasizing is actually difficult to do spontaneously. And, “without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities,” he writes.
Yet there are good reasons to learn to pursue the joy of solitude. If you’re truly okay with being alone, you won’t be driven to fill your time with lower quality activities like mindlessly snacking, compulsive online shopping or watching “The Nasty Wives of Wherever.”
Even if you don’t aspire to be a hermit, you can still learn to become content alone. But, it takes some practice. Here are a few techniques to try:
Pay attention. Sitting quietly, in a darkened room, listen to everything. What is happening around you? Perhaps it’s a fan blowing, a cricket chirping, the sounds of the neighborhood children playing. Listen, also, to what is not happening around you.
Trust. You can learn a lot about yourself when alone. Be willing to be go there.
Open your gift. A few moments of contemplation is a gift in a frenetic world, so if the opportunity comes along, seize it, rather than fighting with it.
Fantasize. Use some alone time to think about your ideal next steps in life. You might be surprised what inspiring ideas pop into your mind. After all, an empty room is ready to be filled by your creativity.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a freelance editor and writer based in Los Angeles. Her book for young readers, Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever! came out last fall.