For starters, I want you to honestly think about the following question: When have you been intentionally and truly alone with yourself for the last time? And with being alone I mean being alone — no TV, no smartphone, no music, no internet and no people — just you and your thoughts. Although it has been shown that being alone is good for you and is in my opinion essential to live your best life and crucial for personal growth, people nowadays seem to avoid it like the plague. So, do you want to learn more and practice what is one of the essential pillars of personal development and living your best life? Then read on.
Why is being alone hard?
In today’s world, it becomes increasingly hard to actually be alone with yourself (note: I am not talking about feeling alone — according to this and various other studies, feeling alone is widespread amongst adults). We are bombarded with thousands of opportunities of entertainment and distraction, which we slowly but surely become addicted to and dependent upon. (If you don’t believe me, pay attention to people in social settings once conversation dies down, have a look at people commuting, waiting or even walking. Most of them will be looking at their smartphone or keeping themselves busy by other means. Almost none of them dares to be alone with their thoughts anymore, since none of them seems to get that being alone is good for you and for your mental health.)
Since we are connected to the internet 24 hours a day, it is easy to avoid feeling disconnected. Receiving new messages or checking out your friend’s latest holiday pictures gives you a nice, warm feeling of interconnectedness and of being part of a community. We as humans are genetically programmed to strive for social affiliation.
The blinking and connected digital world of today might provide this nice feeling, but it strips us of something that is absolutely crucial for good mental health and is the basis for any personal growth: Being able to be alone with yourself and your thoughts and actively doing so.
So keep this in mind when you start out — it will feel hard and weird at first, but that is only because your brain has been conditioned to constantly be connected to others or occupied with other types of (digital) entertainment. However, the more you practice the art of being alone, the more it will start to feel natural, the more you will evolve as a human being on the way to live your best life and the more of its numerous benefits you will discover!
What being alone will do for you
The greatest minds of our time don’t come up with their ideas in front of the TV.
Before we dive into the numerous benefits of being alone and why it enables you to live your best life, I want to clarify what I actually mean by the expression. After all, I would never suggest to cut off all your social interactions and live like a hermit for days at end (although that can be a very interesting experience!)
The benefits of being alone manifest if you are able to willingly take some time off for yourself — be it five minutes or an hour a day, whatever works best for you. During this time you actively focus on being alone with yourself — thinking about your life and desires, reflecting your behavior, coming to terms with your emotions. All the important things that people in our modern world seem to not have much time for since they are too busy refreshing their social media feeds. Try to not perceive this time as a nuisance or source of boredom, but as an opportunity to spend time with your favorite person — yourself!
Being alone is the basis of personal growth
Personal growth can be broken down into two different areas: First, there are your interactions and experiences with the outside world and second, your interactions and experiences with yourself.
You can think of the first area as entering a competition or writing an exam, where you get tested on your skills — which is exactly what the outside world and life does on a day to day basis. It tests your ability to live. It throws all kinds of things at you, good and bad — distractions and challenges, opportunities and threats, beautiful sunny days and extra shifts at work, wonderful people and so much more. It is very easy to get sucked into the maelstrom of everyday life, to participate in event after event, to watch movie after movie, to go to party after party, to write exam after exam, to work hour after hour, to visit friend after friend, to reply to message after message. Life, especially in our modern and hectic world, does not give you much opportunity and encouragement to be alone with your thoughts.
Now, think of the second area as training or studying, where you reflect on yourself, work on your skills and recharge.
You just have one life to do something which could make all your dreams come true, to live your best life — so don’t cut yourself short and take the time to prepare for it.
In this sense, being alone also gives you an opportunity to figure out what you want and what to do to get there, from little changes in your daily grind to your biggest goals in life. It enables you to tackle this one-time only chance properly. You can’t live your best life if you don’t take time to be alone and think about your goals and systems, your progress and your way of living.
So in order to be able to live your best life, you need to be alone with yourself on a regular basis. This is the only time where actual personal growth from within can occur, since some parts of your personal growth journey have to be made by you and only you — like self-reflection, figuring out your values, your purpose, learning to be thankful and much more. Sure enough, these things can be taught and talked about, you might even get someone like me to guide you through the process. But they have to be experienced and lived by you yourself and most importantly by you alone.
Being alone enables you to find yourself
Ever heard someone saying something along the lines of “…yeah so I will spend half a year in [whatever country] to find myself.”? Probably. I have, multiple times. Although I have never used this phrase myself, as I think it is a bit too cliché for my personal taste, there is some truth to it. The truth behind it is not that whenever you go travelling, you just magically “find yourself” and come back as a new person. No. The truth is that when you are travelling, you are a lot more likely to be alone with yourself, since you are pulled from your usual environment.
All of a sudden, Netflix is not there anymore to entertain you, your friends you used to hang out with every other night are an 8 hour plane ride away and your mobile data plan doesn’t work overseas which makes it harder to engage in hours of social media. Sounds scary, right? But add to this beautiful places you are going to see and you don’t exactly have to be an Einstein to figure out that you are going to spend a lot more time by yourself and have a damn good time doing so. (About being alone while traveling: I spent my 20th birthday and the two days around it on a lonely beach in the northeast of Australia. No phone reception, no other people, not a single birthday wish. A little extreme for most people, but definitely a life changing experience.)
So, in a nutshell, the hustle & bustle of everyday life is far far away and you get to spend time with yourself — and have you ever seen a person coming back from a holiday or travelling exhausted and stressed? Thought so. See, being alone is good for you.
Being alone enables you to find yourself since it gives you the time you need with yourself to figure out the answers to the really big and important questions of life like what makes you happy, what do you want to do for a living, what kind of life do you want to look back on once you are old, etc. The list is long.
Obviously, if you decide to be alone with your thoughts on the next subway ride instead of staring at your smartphone, you won’t all of a sudden figure out your dream job (or maybe you will?) but small steps count. These ten minutes of being alone give you enough time to reflect about what has happened in your day so far, how you have reacted to various things, how different outside influences made you feel.
For example, you may think about earlier, when this one guy smiled at you and let you walk through the door first — and all of sudden you notice that you actually really value kindness and courtesy (one step closer to figuring out your values) and you are thankful for this kind gesture (one more step towards being a grateful person). One step closer to living your best life. Don’t expect changes to happen overnight, the benefits accumulate and build over time.
Being alone because science
Since the first two benefits of being alone I mentioned are definitely more on the personal growth and big picture side of things, I want to give you some hard, science-based facts on top.
According to Forbes Magazine being alone has numerous positive effects:
Being alone increases empathy, since you are not surrounded by your inner circle and actually can take time to put yourself into the position of someone whose opinions or ideology you might not agree with.
Being alone increases productivity. Thinking about it, what this study has found out is kind of a no-brainer. Less distraction, more action.
Being alone is linked to good mental health. People who enjoy time alone seem to score higher on happiness, life satisfaction and ability for stress management and also experience less depression. As I am always on the critical side of things (especially when it comes to science and studies), one has to distinguish between a causal connection and mere correlation. Obviously someone who lives his best life and is at peace with himself is much more likely to enjoy alone time than someone suffering from depression — which does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. Either way, if you enjoy spending time with yourself, you are on the right path.
Being lonely like a pro
Now that you know about the why, it is time to talk about the how. As with all things meant to enable you to live your best life, it is crucial to incorporate the ritual of doing these on a regular basis, until they become a habit. That’s where the real gold is. To help you do so, I have compiled a short list of tips which will hopefully make it easier for you to stick with it.
Tip 1: Slow but steady
Start small, but stick to it. Take some time, as little as five or ten minutes every day to be alone with yourself. I recommend some time in the morning and in the evening, one to think about the day ahead and one to reflect what has happened during the day. I usually start my time alone with some focused meditation, getting myself into the right mindset.
You are free to pick whatever timeslots work best for you, but you have to stick with them by making them a habit. If you want to do more (e.g. during lunchtime or on the weekend), feel free to add, but the most important thing is that you never let go of that baseline you established. Five to ten minutes per day. That’s all it takes.
Tip 2: Eliminate distractions and set your mind right
Being alone with yourself is very much like working on a project or studying: You have to focus on it and you easily get distracted. Therefore, you have to prepare your mind for it and avoid getting distracted. If your mind is still racing because you had a stressful day at work and a heated argument with your partner, first take some time to calm down. Take a hot bath, cold shower or blast some loud music, whatever helps. Next, eliminate all distractions. Turn off your phone and computer, close the windows if your neighborhood is noisy, move everything out of sight that might distract you. If you can, assign a specific spot in your apartment for your alone time, e.g. a specific chair or corner of a room. Over time, your mind will get conditioned to switch to “being alone mode” when you sit down in this chair, enabling you to enter a flow state more easily. Make the time as productive as possible.
Tip 3: Think about what you want to think about
Prepare yourself for your alone time by mentally or physically making a list of what you want to focus your thoughts on.
Depending on the time of the day and personal preferences, here are some starting points.
If you are taking time for yourself in the morning, start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Which important events are going to happen today?
- How will I behave during those so my behavior is in line with my values?
- How can I live today so my behavior is in line with whom I want to be as a person (my identity)?
- How can I fulfill my life purpose and take a step closer towards my life goals during this day?
If you are taking time for yourself in the evening, start by reflecting your day and asking yourself the following questions:
- What happened today that was important?
- How did I behave during those events and how did this make me feel?
- Was my behavior in line with my values and who I want to be as a person (your identity)?
- Did I fulfill my purpose and get a step closer towards my life goals during this day?
- If something did not work out as planned: Why and what can I learn from it?
If you have more time on hand and really want to get into it, I strongly encourage you to think about what I call your fundamentals — your values, your life goals, your identity and your purpose. Just keep in mind that they are by nature rather comprehensive subjects and might therefore require more than five to ten minutes of continuous thought.
Bonus Tip: I usually have a list on my phone with all the things I encounter in my daily life which give me food for thought. For example I might have had an interesting conversation with someone that broadened my horizon and showed me new ways of thinking. I might have seen a homeless person and now wonder what I could possibly learn from him for my life. (Side note: In my opinion you can learn something from everyone — you just have to be able to see it.) Once you get in the right state of mind, more and more subjects will pop up.
Tip 4: Be confident being alone
If you take time off to be alone with yourself, you are actively working to live your best life. You are doing something that is good for you. Moreover, you are doing something that separates you from a good 90% of the other people. Consciously being alone is a good thing if you are using the time productively. Being confident about it enables you to feel good being alone. Nowadays, if I feel like it, I will take the time for myself even when I am out partying. It does not mean that I am not having fun or being a loner — I may just have had an interesting talk and want to digest the new information because I want to learn and grow to be able to live my best life.
Another side note: I usually never stay alone for long at parties. There is something about that aura of someone being perfectly confident and happy with himself that magically draws people in. Usually it does not even take ten minutes for someone to approach me — the ideal opportunity to start a talk about living your best life or to just say “I was just thinking about life, but let’s go and party and have fun now”. Talk about a win-win situation.
Knowledge is power. But knowledge without action is useless.
Sounds fancy, right? It may sound cliché, but it’s true. You read the article, you have the knowledge. Good! But now you have to apply it. Start by asking yourself the questions outlined above and go from there. You have to make the change.
In a busy world and a life full of opportunities, do not forget yourself. Take some time to prepare and think about the things that matter. Take some time with yourself, for yourself.
All the best,