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6 Ways to Be Happy Alone
A study suggests that people have a hard time being alone with their thoughts. What can you do about it?
By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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Everybody spends time alone, but some of us find it more difficult than others. The potential benefits of solitude include reduced stress, enhanced creativity, and improved concentration. Yet a study suggests that many people prefer any stimuli, even negative ones, to being alone with their thoughts.
Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist and happiness expert at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, isn’t surprised. “Our normal state of being is constant stimulation,” she says. “We live in a culture of busyness, where we’re constantly moving, constantly doing, constantly on the go. We equate being busy with meaningfulness, so when we’re alone, it can trigger a lot of fear and anxiety that our lives are lacking meaning.”
Researchers from the University of Virginia asked subjects to spend up to 15 minutes alone without any distractions. Less than half of the participants said they enjoyed this “thinking period.” Given the option of distracting themselves with a small electrical shock, roughly two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women chose to do so.
“It may be that the mind evolved to engage with the external world and that, in the absence of any external input, many people find it difficult to focus solely on their thoughts,” says the study’s lead author Timothy Wilson. “I suspect that thinking may be easier when there is something to focus on in the external world that is mildly engaging.”
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. While research has shown that loneliness poses serious health risks, a certain amount of “alone time” can be good for you.
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“We need to understand the difference between time spent alone in mindful awareness and true isolation,” Carter says. “As human beings, we are very tribal and meant to be in connection with other people… [but] when people learn how to be alone with their thoughts without stimulation, they tend to feel less lonely.”
Here are some tips on how you can benefit from quality time spent alone:
Start small.“The ability to be alone is a learned skill,” Carter says. “If you’re new to it, start by carving out small spaces of time when you commit to being alone.” She recommends eating a meal by yourself once a week, avoiding all technology until after your morning shower, or refusing to read the newspaper for the first 10 minutes of breakfast.
Practice mindfulness.Pay attention to what you’re doing in the moment, even if it’s just sitting on a bus or performing a simple task. “When you’re washing your hands, focus on each finger, from the top to bottom,” says Kimberly Wulfert, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Ventura, California. “Notice how the water feels, what the temperature is, and so on. So often we’re thinking about the past and worrying about the future that we forget to live in the present.”
Focus on breathing.Having a single point of reference to concentrate on, such as the in-and-out motion of breathing, can clear the mind of other thoughts. Deep breathing can have a calming effect. “Being alone can cause anxiety and fear, which can cause the heart to beat faster,” Carter says. “Deep breathing will activate the part of the nervous system that will slow the heart rate down.”
Let your mind wander.Our minds are constantly working, so try not to invest too much into wandering thoughts, Carter says. “If a thought pops into your head, acknowledge it,” she says. “Label it. Say, ‘That’s a thought about what my boss said to me today.’ Then let it go.”
Get creative.If you need some external stimuli to feel at ease, Wulfert recommends listening to music you never heard before or getting in touch with your creative side through painting or drawing. “You’re expanding your mind, while at the same time you may just discover something new that you love,” she says.
Write a letter.The experience of putting pen to paper to write a letter to someone you care about can be fun and soothing, Wulfert says. Consider writing a letter to yourself. Imagine who you will be in five or 10 years, and think about what you would want to say to the future you.
“What you’re working up toward is spending enough time alone every single day that you generate this sense of well-being,” Carter says. “It takes time and is uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier.”
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