As a writer, I spend much of my time alone, and yet I almost always want more. I’m fascinated by the relationship between solitude and loneliness, between the yearning to be alone and our deep desire not to feel isolated. A few months ago, I announced to my family – who, to be clear, I love very much – that I was taking myself away for a weekend, something I had not done for more than a decade. My need to be on my own had become too loud to ignore. As I sometimes manage to, I’d let work expand into all the nooks and crannies of my life. All I was doing was work-parent-work-parent – and on that hamster wheel, it’s easy to forget the restorative power of solitude, let alone work out how to achieve it.
And so I went away, to a little hotel, and it was glorious, like a long, slow exhale. A full 28 hours in which no one asked me anything, or needed anything; nobody else had opinions about anything I did, or when I did it. There was no one to please but me. (I didn’t take being able to do it lightly and, yes, it was expensive.) Outside the normal framework of my life, it felt like being in my 20s again, that decade when I had no idea what a luxury I had access to, when my weekends were often empty and the days stretched out in front of me, full of the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was oblivious to the fact that my future self would look back at all those solitary Sunday afternoons lying on a sofa watching television, and envy her own past.
One of the best things about that weekend were the meals alone in the hotel restaurant. I love eating with people, but I like a table for one just as much. I always sit facing the room, with a book for the bits between courses. I watch the staff as well – I was a waitress for years – the ebb and flow of their tasks, the dance they do around each other. There’s nothing boring about being a solo diner in a room full of people; a meal out by myself is what meditation seems to be for everybody else.
“When people do things alone, they enjoy themselves more than they expect to,” says professor of marketing Rebecca Ratner, who has studied how people feel about the idea of undertaking hedonistic activities alone, and then how much they enjoy actually doing them. “People also overestimate the benefits of being with someone else,” she says. Intriguingly, according to the ONS, we seem to enjoy being alone most in childhood, and then over the age of 55 (we also spend more time alone in later life). People aged 24-55 have the least leisure time (and women have 40 minutes a day less than men, on average), and are less likely to enjoy spending it alone. Nonetheless, women are driving a solo travel trend, with surveys suggesting that between 70 and 80% of single travellers are women (average age 47; millennials still make up a big proportion, but boomers do it with more cash in their pockets). Meanwhile, solo dining is increasingly popular, and a widely celebrated activity on TikTok.
There have been plenty of worrying headlines about the health consequences of persistently feeling lonely, but loneliness is a subjective experience – emotional information that needs to be heard – and it’s not the same as solitude. Loneliness feels horrible, but research has shown that solitude can help us be more creative. Susan Cain, who wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, calls this a “catalyst for innovation”. It was ironic that so little of the will-we-won’t-we work from home debate focused on solitude and its eureka moments. I’ve had good ideas crowded round a white board, but the rare exceptional ones arrive when I am alone and usually nowhere near a desk or screen; this is because we are less inhibited when we are alone, feel more self-reliant and are more likely to enter a state of flow, as another set of studies has also demonstrated.
We don’t need science to justify our need for alone time, though. Humans may be social animals, but we all require time by ourselves, away from both money work and care work, to recharge. (In fact, studies have shown that social isolation has evolutionary advantages for various animals, from toads to primates.)
Regular trips to boutique hotels are out of my financial reach, but that weekend was the reminder I needed that taking occasional long walks, seeing an exhibition or sitting alone on a bench in the sun, are not lazy indulgences but antidotes, essential and joyful counterpoints to our busy, noisy, always-on world.
Solo: How to Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind) by Rebecca Seal is published by Souvenir Press at £9.99. Buy it for £9.49 at guardianbookshop.com