Recognising the difference between alone time and being lonely

With a summer packed full of social plans, one writer reflects on the value to be found in enjoying your own company.

When I went for a coffee with a friend recently, I made a joke about how I might just give up on conventional life and retreat into the woods. I’d been feeling fed up about my lack of social plans for the summer: FOMO was well and truly kicking in, and it seemed everyone else had a million things lined up. But then she suggested something radical: spending time by myself could be just as important as the social contact I was craving. Maybe not as a recluse in the woods, admittedly, but it got me thinking about the pressures we’re under to spend our free time surrounded by people, and how much that’ll escalate in the coming months. 

There’s a strange stigma around spending time by yourself. One survey found that two-thirds of Americans would rather be given an electric shock than have to sit alone with their thoughts. Most activities are designed with two or more in mind. I’ve never really understood why going to the cinema was reserved as a group activity given that the majority of the experience is spent sitting in silence, for example, but going alone is a surefire way to get some weird looks. We usually comply with those unspoken rules because we don’t want to be the odd ones out – even if we’d rather spend that free time another way. 

It wasn’t until this past year, really, that I made plans to go out by myself – not because I couldn’t find someone to go with, but because I valued the time spent in my own company. I made a list of things I wanted to do and pencilled some of them in as solo trips. Our social genes are hardwired into us, and I know I find happiness in spending quality time with people. But the idea that you can only really have a nice day out if it’s spent in someone else’s company means we pin the weight of our happiness on everyone except ourselves. Even when we’re with the people we feel most comfortable with, we’re performing the person we think we are in the presence of their company; in spending time alone, we find freedom that helps us to understand who we are outside of the expectations of others. 

Saying that, as empowering as spending time by yourself can be, there’s a risk you run when it comes to embracing your own company – especially considering the summer we have ahead. After 18 months of cancelled plans, distanced gatherings and wet picnics in grey parks, there’s hope of a summer that’ll compensate for the lack of new social memories over the pandemic. Given that the past year and a half has been void of much of a social life, it feels like a waste of our relative freedom to not be making plans with other people, now that we’re allowed to. Nobody wants to be the only one watching a dinner party through Instagram, or the killjoy who backs out of objectively fun plans last minute. 

But maybe it’s time we recognised the difference between saying yes to plans we actually want to attend, and going along with something you’d rather swap for a quiet night in just so you can tell people – and yourself – that you made the most of the summer. As strong as the FOMO might be, if you don’t truly want to go then it’s better than burning your social battery out for the sake of being able to say you were there. It’s important to distinguish between the overwhelming social pressure to fill our calendars and a genuine desire for human connection. 

The hot girl summer sentiment is, above all else, about feeling good in yourself and we shouldn’t need to be constantly surrounded to find that self-confidence. If anything, it means more to feel that assurance in yourself when you’re spending time alone: you’re thriving in your own eyes and by your own measures, rather than judging yourself through what you hope (or fear) other people think about you. I’m still excited to catch up with the friends I’ve missed and enjoy the relative freedom of post-lockdown life, but I know now that packing a schedule full of people isn’t the be all or end all of feeling happy or content. Making the most of the summer could also mean spending some of it by myself, so I look forward to enjoying the pleasure of my own company again – and who knows, maybe a retreat into the woods could make it onto the list after all.