Over the last year and a half, we’ve all spent a lot of time stuck at home.
And while social distancing was stressful for everyone, it was especially difficult for those who live alone.
According to a recent study by Making Caring Common and Harvard Graduate School of Education, 36 percent of all Americans felt “serious loneliness” during the pandemic.
Feelings of loneliness were highest for individuals aged 18 to 25 (61 percent) and mothers of young children (51 percent).
But the pandemic taught us a valuable lesson about the importance of finding ways to be happy alone — because alone and lonely don’t always have to go hand in hand.
So how can you stay healthy and content when you suddenly have an abundance of alone time?
Whether you’ve just moved out on your own or you’ve recently weathered a breakup (or, you know, a worldwide pandemic), here’s what you need to know.
Is Being Alone the Same as Being Lonely?
Let’s start with a quick clarification: Being alone and being lonely are not the same.
Being alone “is just a state of being away and physically apart from others,” says Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist.
In contrast, loneliness is an emotional state.
“Loneliness is a feeling of isolation that comes from an urge to connect with others when you can’t,” Gonzalez-Berrios explains.
That means you may feel emotionally distant from others even if you’re not physically alone.
The good news is, it also means you can be physically alone without feeling lonely.
Understanding this distinction is the first step in learning how to be happy alone, says Debbie Gottlieb, L.C.S.W., a clinical social worker and therapist in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Once you’re aware of the difference, she adds, you can take a two-pronged approach: combatting feelings of loneliness by reframing how you feel about being alone, and figuring out ways to occupy your time when you’re flying solo.
How to Be Okay With Being Alone
“Even if you’re not choosing to spend time alone, you can mitigate feelings of loneliness by packing passion and joy into your alone time,” says Natalie Capano, MHC-LP, a mental health counselor at Cobb Psychotherapy in NYC. “You can take this time to tap into what really makes you happy.”
Try these strategies to help ensure your alone time doesn’t lead to loneliness.
1. Embrace the moment
We always want what we can’t have, right? When we’re overloaded with work or social engagements, we crave downtime.
But when there’s not enough on our calendar, we may feel bored or isolated.
If you find yourself in a phase of being alone, embrace it.
“Live in your moments and stop overthinking about past happenings or future plans,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
She suggests using your alone time to learn something new: Join a class, rekindle an old hobby, or start a daily meditation practice.
2. Build social interaction into your schedule
Find ways to insert human interaction into your schedule.
“If you find yourself going stir crazy and craving connection, try to get out of your space once a day or every other day,” Capano says.
Space out your errands so you’re around others a few times a week. Join a monthly book club. Schedule weekly Zoom calls with college friends.
Pre-scheduling these events will help you maintain social interaction, even when you might not feel like taking the initiative.
3. Limit social media
While the “social” part of social media can help you stay connected with friends and family, social media apps can create an environment that fosters unhealthy comparison traps.
Comparing your life with others can turn aloneness into loneliness. If you find that you feel more isolated after checking your socials, consider taking a hiatus — or at least limiting the amount of time you spend scrolling.
“Take a social media break and connect with yourself,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
4. Get creative
We’ve all said it: “When I have more time, I’d like to…”
Fill in the blank! What have you been waiting to have enough time to do? Learn how to draw? Cook more?
Play the piano? Try a barre workout? Take up floral arranging?
“Doing some creative activity gives you a sense of happiness, purpose, and achievement,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
5. Move your body
Working out boosts your mood — it’s science! Exercise releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which can put you in a happier mindset whether you live alone or are just feeling alone.
“Get physical every day by following a regular exercise or meditation practice,” Gonzalez-Berrios recommends.
This can help to keep your body and mind healthy.
6. Go outside
Make it a priority to get some fresh air and spend time outside, Gottlieb suggests.
According to a 2016 study, just 30 minutes of time outside may offer physical and mental health benefits, including improving symptoms of depression.
7. Help others
If your aloneness is starting to get you down, flip it on its head by redirecting your attention off yourself and onto others.
“Volunteer for a social cause to keep yourself engaged,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
Helping others is feel-good two-fer: While you’re helping others, you’ll feel better, too.
A 2018 study recommended that volunteerism should be promoted as part of a healthy lifestyle.
And according to a 2020 study, volunteering at least once a month may significantly improve wellbeing.
8. Track your feelings
Living alone may limit your options for feedback, so build in regular self-check-ins to see how you’re doing.
“Even if you’re as introverted as can be and your home is your sanctuary, try to check in with yourself weekly to make sure you’re meeting your needs,” Capano recommends.
Consider using a journal to track your emotions.
“Note down your thoughts and feelings for the day,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
This can help you identify triggers for loneliness — like when it typically sets in, how long it lasts, or who you miss at that particular moment, she adds.
9. Set short-term goals
Goals give us a focus and a reason for doing things, so Gottlieb recommends creating mini-challenges to keep yourself motivated.
“Find a short-term goal that is easy to complete,” she says.
That could be a step challenge, completing a home improvement project, or finally finishing that book you started reading months ago.
When to Seek Support for Loneliness
Some people relish their time alone; others, not so much.
“Loneliness can bring sadness, despair, and depression,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
If these feelings are impacting your work and everyday life, you may want to ask for professional guidance.
“If you are not feeling comfortable living alone and find that you are frequently becoming upset and anxious, it’s time to see a mental health expert, such as a therapist or psychiatrist,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.
If you or someone you know is in immediate distress, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or via live online chat.