Solitude tends to get a bad rap in contemporary society, and interestingly, a great deal of the most severe criticism against being alone seems to be directed at women. Men might be labeled “loners” (aka “mad psychopaths”) but they are also allowed to be solitary heroes or reclusive geniuses. “Sad geeks” are usually male, and we are supposed to feel sorry for them. But women who want to be alone? All too often, they are seen as morally reprehensible; “selfish.”
You can see this most clearly in high risk adventurous solo-sports like rock climbing — many of the world’s great climbers are people with children, so when a man dies alone on a mountain, it is a great tragedy. But on the rare occasions that a woman has that sort of accident, she is often openly designated heartless or egotistic. “Good” women in our cultural mythology are meant to be endlessly self-giving and constantly servicing others.
Of course, as I wrote in my book How To Be Alone, this is terribly unfair. Women have as much a need and right to be alone as anyone else.
So here, just to balance the books, are seven valuable things that you can get out of learning to be happily alone — at least some of the time. It is worth noticing that none of them are more applicable to one gender or the other: they are human values.
it heightens our awareness
Being alone heightens and intensifies our emotional and physical responses to external stimuli; especially with nature and the natural world. This attunement to nature in solitude seems to work on a number of levels — we see more, better, and more sensitively (perhaps because we have a single focus for our attention; perhaps because sharing this sort of experience dissipates its emotional charge).
When we're alone, we also have the head-space to explore the symbolic meaning of what we see and feel: nature becomes, literally, more significant. And we are more likely to experience an almost mystical state often called “fusion” — where the barriers between our self and the whole universe disintegrate into an enormous sense of one-ness. I have never read or heard of this glorious sensation happening except to people who are on their own.
it makes us more creative
As Sir Edward Gibbon once said, “Solitude is the school for genius.” It seems to almost a necessity for true creativity. (I say “almost” because there are exceptions — Jane Austen wrote all her immortal novels in the family sitting room, tucking her work under the blotting-paper if anyone came in). But why make things more difficult for yourself if you don't have to? Periods of being alone (even in very sociable artists) seem to be necessary across the board. If you feel you may be a frustrated genius, learn to enjoy being alone, and see what comes out.
it makes us feel free
We value personal, individual freedom, and autonomy very highly in contemporary society, so it is actually a bit odd that we do not also value solitude highly too. Because rather obviously, being happy alone makes one free. At the simplest level, you do not feel any pressure to hold your stomach in, redo your makeup, or even wear clothes. You are free to leave the bathroom door unlocked, pick your nose, sing out of tune, or any of those other little habits to which other people may perfectly reasonably object.
It makes us more successful in our relationships
An individual who knows they can be fully themselves alone, who is not driven by a terror of solitude, can enter far more freely into relationships if that is what they choose to do. Being “needy and greedy” leads to jealousy, envy, a savage instinct to control other people, insecurity, and hyper-sensitivity — all things that undermine love and serenity and joy. A capacity for being alone sets us free to enter into better relationships, if they happen to come our way.
it makes us more spiritual
Every religious or spiritual tradition that I have ever encountered recognizes solitude as the most effective way of forming, or deepening, a relationship with the divine, or more generally a connection to that numinous quality often called “spirituality.” Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad all spent time alone before launching their religious missions. Many different societies, with very different belief systems, think that time spent alone is a key element of spiritual development. The great ecstatic visionary states and mystical experiences throughout all of recorded history arise in freely sought-out solitude and aloneness.
it makes you more resilient
It is highly unlikely that you will get through your life without having some experience of being alone thrust upon you. After all, more Americans are living alone than ever before: In 1970, only 17 percent of the U.S. population was living alone, but by 2012, that number reached 27.4 percent. Demographically, the two fastest rising groups of people living alone are women over 75 (bereavement creates solitude) and men between 30 and 45 (relationship breakdown creates solitude).
Death and separation are not usually good experiences — but they are made infinitely worse if you are frightened or incapable of being on your own; if you see no possibility of anything good or happy being possible in a solitary life. And there are other reasons for unexpected solitude which are not caused by any fault of your own, but by the very nature of being alive. Some positive experience of being alone, which you can only acquire through practice, is like a wise insurance policy.
it can help you feel happier
For some people, solitude actually proves to be good for their mental health. Yes, loneliness is indeed a cause of depression, but for another group of people, over-stimulation, a constant sense of stress and social anxiety, and a demanding obligation to “perform well” has exactly the same effect.
If we never seek out solitude and see what it might offer us, we will never really know which group we belong in. As someone who has experienced no depression since I started living alone (despite a long medical history with depression when I lived with others), I would very strongly recommend giving it a try.
Being alone, doing what you want to do, enjoying freedom, creativity, transcendence, the spaciousness of the natural world, a unique kind of disinhibition, an enhanced sense of security, and the excellent company of your new closest friend — yourself — is fun. And fun is a good thing.