Wasn’t that long ago when pleading for “me time” was a national pastime. Perhaps even our top form of self-care.
When the noise around us had gotten so loud, we’d be grateful for an uninterrupted shower to get away from parents, roommates, or kids. When after-work drinks dotted the cal so often, we’d find excuses not to go (“my cat ate my MetroCard—sorry!”). When dates and parties and family get-togethers made our schedules le-sigh with exhaustion.
Now? Not so much. We’re more alone than ever. In every aspect of our lives. Take our living situations: Nearly 28 percent of U.S. households consist of just one person today, a number that’s tripled since tracking began in 1940 and is now at an all-time high. On the job, 44 percent of people now work remotely full-time—a spike from 17 percent pre-pandemic.
And though (#godbless) Friends may be streaming all day every day, friends are scarce. According to one survey, about 42 percent of women ages 18 to 49 lost touch with friends between 2020 and 2021, and 15 percent lost touch with most of them.
While being alone is beneficial for well-being, that’s when it happens in doses. Not 24/7! When the U.S. surgeon general declared loneliness an epidemic earlier this year, he explained how disconnectedness is stomping all over our collective mental health in life-shortening ways (we’re paraphrasing). According to a study in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, loneliness spikes your risk of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.
A third of young adults are already living with a mental illness. Throw loneliness on top, and it’s like dousing a flickering grill with kerosene. Bad cycle. Bad! Fixing the social isolation epidemic is arguably the most urgent public health priority in America.
But until then? Excellent question, one we had as well.
It’s possible to negate some of the negative vibes of running solo—by learning how to be alone, and actually feeling comfortable. How do you do that? Here’s what the experts told us.
1. Brush up on your anti-social skills
Being alone is not something the human body or mind is built to do, says Kory Floyd, Ph.D., a professor of communication at the University of Arizona and the author of The Loneliness Cure. You have to actually learn how to be alone—basically, the inverse of learning how to start and maintain convos in social situations.
Say you grew up in a big family, moved in with roommates, then got an apartment with your sig other. You might not have ever learned how to be content by yourself. “As with other skills, being alone successfully takes time and practice and is best learned by starting slowly,” Dr. Floyd says.
If you’ve never spent much time alone, you’ll likely feel anxious. Start by spending time by yourself while around other people, suggests Dr. Floyd. For example, go to a cafe or restaurant alone. You aren’t technically alone, but he says this is the first step to feeling more comfortable when you are.
2. Stop the comparison game
You’ve heard a million times that too much social media can make you anxious, depressed, and lonely. Here’s why:
COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY
It’s a cliché, but a true one. Put it on a sticky note. Make it your screensaver. Order yard signs. Don’t forget it.
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We all know social media is not reality—that people are usually posting just one side of their lives and that our FOMO is partly based in fantasy. And yet, we easily forget, says therapist Vera Cheng, MSW. We watch Reel after Reel and pretty soon we think their lives are literally rainbows and lollipops. Enter: negative emotions.
Social media also creates the delusion that we know what’s going on in our friends’ lives, even without talking to them for months, says therapist Jenny Taitz, Psy.D., the author of How to Be Single and Happy. This can lead to a false sense of connection, or even jealousy.
Solution? If only your handheld social media machine could let you hear a friend’s voice in real time. Oh, wait.
3. Remember: You don’t actually know The Bear
Maybe being alone makes you feel so uncomfortable that you seek the constant white noise of Sex & The City reruns playing in the background. It’s okay to use TV, music, or even social media (comparison is the thief of joy, yo) to keep you company, says behavioral science expert Bill Howatt, Ph.D., Ed.D., the author of The Cure for Loneliness. The key is to be purposeful about it.
If you want to veg in front of Netflix for an hour or two at the end of the day to relax, go for it. But if you’re expecting Carrie or Miranda to make you feel less lonely, prepare for disappointment—and maybe depression. In fact, Dr. Howatt says, consider that expectation a warning that it’s time to actually connect with a non-fictional character, on the phone or IRL.
“When TV or social media becomes a habit that keeps you away from other people,” he says, “that’s when it becomes an at-risk behavior for loneliness.”
It comes down to balance, says Dr. Taitz. Relaxation is essential—and watching Netflix or scrolling TikTok can be part of that. But it’s crucial to continue to check in with yourself. Here’s a litmus test: When you crawl under your weighted blanket at night (speaking of, here are the best weighted blankets for mental health), do you wonder what you did all day, or what the point of it all was?
If so, that’s an indicator—a flashing red light on a waving red flag, honestly—that you may need to find more ways to 1) connect with others, and 2) spend more time doing things that actually mean something to you, whether it’s by yourself or not.
4. Get intimate with your thoughts
The only time some people spend alone with their thoughts is in bed. If that’s you, well, no wonder you can’t sleep.
This is the consequence of too much stimulation, says Dr. Taitz. If the TV is always on when you’re alone, it gets in the way of processing your inner thoughts and emotions.
If your LinkedIn and Bumble profiles contain phrases like cozy nights in, contactless Grubhub only, remote work 4 life, get your hybrid outta here…. It’s all good.
It’s healthy to enjoy time alone, and totally okay to seek more of it. As one Mental reader put it: “I need more time to recharge my social battery than most people.”
Which—accompanied by the fact we can do pretty much everything without ever leaving the house—might make you wonder, Is seeing people even necessary? Therapists are unanimous: Silly question. YES! If you don’t spend any time with other humans, science shows that you will start to feel lonely. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between time spent alone and experiencing loneliness, according to a study in Psychology and Aging.
Also worth noting: Once you start spending time by yourself, it can become a habit, making it harder to go out into the world and see people IRL, says Kory Floyd, Ph.D., a professor of communication at the University of Arizona and the author of The Loneliness Cure. An explanation why pandemic lockdowns have made us feel weird about our old-school ways of socializing.
So, where’s the line between alone and lonely? It depends. Because it’s different for all of us, it’s important to regularly check in with yourself. “Feeling lonely,” says Dr. Floyd, “is the built-in reminder that we need social connection,” just as feeling tired is the body’s way of telling us to GO TO SLEEP.
Likewise, “there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for connection,” says therapist Jenny Taitz, Psy.D., the author of How to Be Single and Happy. Time and form both vary by person. “Some people prefer group activities, while others prefer more intimate meetups,” she adds.
Once you’ve established that more social connection would be good for you, what’s a lonely-ish person to do? Start by reaching out to people you know, says therapist Vera Cheng, MSW. (Hey, sometimes the best answer is the obvious one.)
If you work remotely but colleagues live nearby, Slack them and ask if they want to meet for dinner to get to know one another as people and not Zoom-bots. Remember that stat about all the friendships that died during the pandemic? A 2022 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that the vast majority of the time, people are happy to receive a phone call, text, or email from someone out of the blue—even if years have passed.
Or maybe you would rather seek out new connections (or you have to, because you work from wherever). Cheng says fear of being judged often prevents people from making new friends, but people aren’t as judgmental as we think. Science literally shows that most people underestimate how much others like them, a phenomenon called the “liking gap.” In other words, don’t let unease stop you from putting yourself out there.
Dr. Taitz and Cheng both see immense value in activities like journaling (here are the best journals for mental health) or going for a walk sans Airpods. “It gives you the opportunity to get clear on what’s important to you, something you’re not able to do if you’re constantly distracting yourself,” Dr. Taitz says. “This gives you the headspace to design your best life. Creating the life you want to live requires time to reflect.”
5. Rebalance your positive-negative thought ratio
A key reason being alone is uncomfortable for so many people: It’s when all sorts of negative thoughts enter their minds, says Dr. Taitz. I’m unlovable, boring, unsuccessful…all the lies that anxiety tells. Suddenly, alone morphs into lonely.
Learning how to be alone means understanding how to counteract these thoughts. And that’s a game-changer, says Dr. Taitz, who recommends doing a loving kindness meditation everyday—a few minutes is enough. Essentially, this involves focusing warm, kind intentions toward yourself and others. (You can find this type of exercise on YouTube or a meditation app, like Headspace or Calm.)
Skeptical? We get it: Not everybody’s a huge fan of meditation. But studies show that loving kindness meditations absolutely work, consistently increasing positive emotions and decreasing negative ones. Come on, try it! We did and kinda sorta enjoyed it.
Last thing: Give yourself some grace, okay? Being comfortable while alone is not natural and, as with typing when someone’s watching, you’re not likely to get it right the first time. Also, even if you learn to be alone—and get really good at it—connecting with others is still essential to your mental health.
You need both. That balance—with trial and error, you’ll find what works for you—is the antidote to loneliness.
Did we mention that comparison is the thief of joy? Oh, good.