It seems that nowadays, we are spending more time alone. We dine out alone more often and solo vacations are becoming the new family vacations. In fact, one study by Deloitte Insights found that single-person households are expected to rise 13% over the next 12 years.
Yet given our current trajectory, solitude is often not welcome. “Indeed, for many of us, solitude is something to be avoided, something associated with problems like loneliness and depression,” writes author Stephanie Rosenbloom.
In her new book, Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Rosenbloom takes us on a journey across seasons, cities, assumptions, and preconceived notions to consider just what solitude has to offer.
“For one thing, time spent away from the influence of others allows us to explore and define who we are,” writes Rosenbloom.
Unfettered space, time, and room to explore are the foundation of creativity, philosophy, and innovation and something cherished by big thinkers like Michelangelo, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who resisted having a telephone until she was 84.
“While other people can be a source of happiness, they can, at times, nevertheless, be a distraction,” writes Rosenbloom.
What we miss when we are with other people is the opportunity to sink into experience, allowing ourselves to become absorbed while we savor all of the rich details.
One example Rosenbloom offers is the French board game Tokaido, where players must travel Japan’s ancient Tokaido road taking in the mountains, seas, and rice paddies, tasting local specialties, meeting local people, donating to temples, and soaking in hot springs. The object of the game, Rosenbloom tells us, “is not to get to the end of the road first or amass the most money. It is to have the richest experience possible.”
Savoring is not just a way to recharge, restore, and recuperate; it is a way to stave off unpleasant feelings. Rosenbloom quotes psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, saying, “People who become skilled at capturing the joy of the present moment are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt, and shame.”
Yet savoring is more than just simply taking in the moment. It is the active pursuit of joy in the moment.
Rosenbloom offers the suggestion of Fred Bryant, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, to use “temporal awareness” to remind ourselves that the moment will not last. Rosenbloom writes, “It may seem counterintuitive, but awareness that something is fleeting tends to increase our enjoyment of it.”
The sharpness of our perceptual awareness and the diversity of savoring strategies available to us are often predicative of how much joy we will find in the moment. One example is our appreciation of beauty. Rosenbloom writes, “Alone, we can form a special relationship with art.”
Tranquility, self-reflection, and personal freedom also encourage a deeper understanding of ourselves that is unhindered by the expectations, needs, or responses of others.
We may try things we otherwise would not have, go places we might have avoided, and find ourselves facing uncertainty. These experiences go beyond simplified notions of happiness — they incite a feeling of meaning.
Rosenbloom writes, “Simply getting out of our comfort zones — trying a different route to work, introducing ourselves to a new neighbor, speaking up for something we believe in — is important because it can help us spot opportunities, discover a strength, and shape the trajectory of our life rather than regretting our inaction.”
Challenge is also a fundamental component of flow, the feeling of complete and total absorption in an activity that is enjoyable simply for its own sake. In flow, we expand our boundaries, perhaps even transcend them, perfect our skills, ignite our creativity, and we emerge with a greater sense of self.
Learning, like that which happens in flow, lies at the heart of happiness. “Alone we can go off and learn for the sake of learning, delving into whatever interests us: astronomy, botany, literature, architecture. We can pursue a painting or a planet and experience a gratification that comes from discovering something we didn’t know before,” writes Rosenbloom.
When alone, we can also withdraw into our own restorative, meditative, or reflective place where we can organize our thoughts, reflect on past actions, prepare for future activities, or just do nothing. Rosenbloom quotes Amy Schumer, “I enjoy being alone. I need it. And I’ve never been happier than when I finally figured this out about myself.”
Experiences need not be extraordinary to be gratifying. Selfies need not be taken every moment. And smartphones can be turned off for a day. What we may learn is that it is in the everyday moments — taking in a beautiful sunset, talking to a stranger, visiting a part of our city we had previously rushed by, savoring a delicious meal, or simply sitting still — that engagement, appreciation, and enjoyment live.
With an extraordinary compilation of personal experience and revealing science, Rosenbloom’s Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude makes the compelling case that we rethink our perceptions of what it means to be alone.
Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude
Viking, June 2018
Hardcover, 288 Pages