Solitude has long been viewed with suspicion or bemusement, says journalist and author Francesca Specter. However, in the right circumstances, it can be the thing we need most
Lockdown fads came and went (remember the banana bread revolution?), but one recurrent topic was solitude: how much – or little – were you getting, and what was the effect on your mental health? We’d never been so polarised in our ‘me-time’ allocation; if you spent the past year living with family, housemates or a partner, you likely enjoyed next to none – whereas if you were among the eight million people in the UK living alone, it was a different story entirely.
But what about enjoying alone time in moderation? At the beginning of 2019, I coined the word ‘alonement’, which describes when time alone is fulfilling and joyful, after realising there was no equivalent, objectively positive word for solitude in the English language. I quite fancy some alonement tonight, you might say to your partner on a Sunday night, after a weekend where you’ve been together 24/7. Or it’s a name for that feeling of relief when you close the front door behind you after a long day at the office.
As a lifelong extrovert, I’d never developed the capacity to enjoy solitude. It took rebranding it to myself (quite literally, inventing language) and learning to relish activities like visiting the cinema and going abroad, solo, to change my perception.
Solitude is something that, as a society, we’ve long treated with suspicion or bemusement. This is partly because of extreme or even negative labelling of those who actively seek time alone: the cliched ‘introvert’ who hates parties, the eccentric genius who takes himself (because this is inevitably a male trope) off to the woods to write. Secretly, you might fear being alone with your thoughts, and so the idea of you, or someone close to you, choosing solitude over company might seem baffling. I know I used to feel that way.
The pandemic hasn’t helped the general perception of ‘alone time’, either. Aloneness has taken on a rather unsavoury association with public health measures: social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine. After a situation that forced so many of us to be physically alone, or else to feel alone – that is to say, isolated from the people we depend on – our existing suspicion or fear towards solitude might have intensified.
And yet, as we put our heads above the parapet and re-enter the socially connected world, alonement has never been so necessary. If your social muscles have atrophied over the past year, you’re certainly not alone – and you might not feel ready to ‘snap back’ to the busy, hectic lifestyle you had in the Old Normal. Besides, you might have realised that the quiet moments or rituals you had over the past year are worth holding on to. That’s where alonement comes in: it’s a handy word to justify and communicate your choice to factor in a bit more solitude going forward.
Taking quality ‘me-time’ might soon prove an asset in your mental health toolkit. It was only after launching my podcast – Alonement, in which I interviewed high-profile guests of all different ages, life stages and backgrounds – that I realised just how universally important solitude is. Alone time reaps rewards from a psychological perspective. As Dr Emma Hepburn (aka @thepsychologymum) shared on my podcast, healthy alone time (i.e. through choice) can give our brains a chance to relax and make connections that it might not do when we’re around other people, leading to enhanced creativity. Case in point: alone time allows Emma to create the insightful illustrations she’s gained Insta-fame for. Nell Frizzell, an author and journalist, shared how her solo wild swimming ritual has helped her rediscover her sense of self after becoming a parent: ‘It makes me feel alive and vital in a way I struggle to be when I’m at home playing with Lego.’
Alonement can benefit you, whatever your romantic status. A number of my guests, from personal trainer Alice Liveing to comedian John Robins, championed the ability to have alone time as a key factor in their relationships’ success; it seems absence does make the heart grow fonder. Couples may understand this more than ever after being cooped up together during lockdown. Meanwhile, as a single person, my capacity to enjoy activities alone, from solo travel to a restaurant meal for one, is liberating – and means I won’t get into a relationship for the wrong reasons (just to have someone to do these things with).
The challenge is that alone time can decline into loneliness, particularly if the element of choice is taken away. This is something I – like many others – experienced in the most extreme way during lockdown, when government restrictions meant months apart from loved ones. ‘Being alone, when not a choice, is loneliness which creates stress, which has an adverse effect on our wellbeing,’ shared Dr Hepburn on the podcast. This happens outside of a pandemic too: for instance, being ‘cancelled on’ at the last minute, or left out of a social plan, can make you feel your aloneness isn’t chosen, adding to the risk of loneliness.
So how to resist loneliness, and maintain alonement? It might sound strange from someone who writes full-time about solitude, but a year of lockdown has made me realise just how important having a foundation of connection is to help us feel comfortably alone. The best ‘alonement’ occurs when you feel confident that you’ve got meaningful relationships with a network of people who you feel supported by, even in their physical absence. Try balancing out a morning spent alone with a half-hour phone call to a close friend; the contrast helps you savour both.
The crucial thing about alonement is that it needs to be in moderation – something we’re likely only just able to regain this side of the year of lockdowns. Think about it like a balanced diet, although the exact nature of this balance varies for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t like to spend a whole day alone, just like there’s nothing wrong with you if you find being around others 24/7 exhausting. When it comes to alonement, a little goes a long way. Try introducing small amounts into your life – 15 minutes to savour your coffee before work, an hour spent reading in the evening – and experience the benefits for yourself.
THREE SOLITUDE SKILLS
Plan a solo date
We’re used to booking fancy brunches with friends, or days out with our partner – but what about with ourselves? Showing yourself the same attention helps you treat alone time as ‘quality time’.
Create a solo ritual
This could be a daily breakfast routine in which you read the papers in blissful silence, or an early evening stroll.
Learn to communicate
Respectfully explain your alonement needs to your loved ones (‘It’s not you – I value alone time’). This allows you to practice them without guilt or fear of misunderstanding. It might inspire them to try alonement too!