Loneliness and learning how to be alone
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Is the cure for loneliness learning how to be alone?

Want to get to know yourself, to be creative, to connect better with other people? You need time on your own. But why does it feel so hard, asks Brigid Moss

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By Brigid Moss on

Can you remember the last time you were completely alone? No people, no phone by your side? No Facebook, internet, no chat at the shops, no Google Maps? Most people haven’t done longer than 24 hours, says Michael Harris, author of Solitude, a book that explores why we hardly ever spend time on our own – and why we should.

We think we do. That panic when you think you’ve lost your phone? It’s because our devices plug right into the human need for connection, a need that evolved for survival. “Social media is the fast food of social connection,” says Harris, in that it’s moreish, but it doesn’t nourish you in the way real people do. Harris confesses he feels the pull, too. “I don't write about these things because I think I am better than other people – I write about them because I have just as much difficulty.”

The ease of pulling out our phone – in a queue, commuting, walking, shopping, eating – is why we have lost the ability to be alone, says Harris. It was moving to a new city where he knew few people, Toronto, that made Harris realise his own inability to be in solitude. “It got me thinking: we are the most connected generation in history, but we’re suffering an epidemic of loneliness. I had the realisation that the cure for loneliness maybe isn’t more connections. Perhaps the cure for loneliness is learning how to be alone?”

Solitude helps you connect better with other people. If you’re not comfortable in your own company, why would you expect other people to be interested in hanging out with you?

What we all need, he says, is to master the art of solitude. His first step was to convince himself of the value of it. As well as spending a week alone in a cabin in the wilds of Canada, he spoke to experts including Kalina Christoff, who MRI-scans the daydreaming brain at the University of British Columbia.

“The big umbrella idea is that spending time alone is how you build a rich interior life,” he tells me. It’s the source of fresh ideas. “You don’t get a new idea sitting around a conference table. You get those eureka moments only in times alone.”

It also helps you know yourself. “You can’t know what you like, or what you believe in, unless you’ve first removed yourself from our system of collectivised approval. We know from research that people are changing the way they write and the way they look based on crowd-sourced information they get from social media.”

And solitude helps you connect better with other people. “If you’re not comfortable in your own company, why would you expect other people to be interested in hanging out with you?”

But, in order to reap those amazing benefits, it requires an effort, to kick against our hard-wired tendency to connect, to pick up the phone. “Solitude is a practice,” says Harris. “Everyone has to devise their own solitude diet.” Here are some ways you might want to start:

1 Change your mornings

“Buy an alarm clock and put it on your bedside table. Banish the phone from the bedroom. We know that the moment when most fresh ideas come is that little space between sleep and waking. If you, in the moment of waking up, lunge for your phone, you’re cheating yourself of that opportunity to have those fresh ideas, to process everything that’s happened the day before.” Harris tries to push back his first interaction by an hour or two, “before allowing the world to start dominating my attention".

2 Curate your screen time

“Reframe your relationship with your devices so you are not passively allowing them to interfere with your life.” Decide how much and when you’ll be on your screen, depending on the day. “You have a limited amount of attention, so spend it on what needs to be done. If I happen to have an excess of attention any one day, maybe I’ve earned a visit to some YouTube rabbit hole.” Think of clickbait, he says, like chocolate cake – fine as a treat, not fine three times a day.  

3 Prioritise alone time

Build alone time into your day. It might be you need to turn down dinner parties or go home early from drinks, but do it. “The friends who are going to be easily offended are not worth your time,” he says. Lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, look out of the window, go for a walk without your phone “and allow your brain to do that semi-conscious magic that it does” – the magic of creating.

Solitude: In Pursuit Of A Singular Life In A Crowded World by Michael Harris (Random House Books, £9.99) is out now in paperback


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