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Why Doing Stuff Alone Is Okay

By: Justin Keller

man standing on a mountain looking at sunset

A few months ago my wife was out of town. A friend asked what I was going to do with my “weekend as a bachelor.”

“There’s this Cuban new restaurant I’ve wanted to check out, so I’m going there and then going to a movie.”
“Sounds like fun! Who are you going with?”
“No one – just doing the solo thing!”
“That’s weird,” said my friend.

Would you agree that dinner and a movie by yourself seems weird? Does the idea of doing things that would ordinarily be deemed social, adventurous, or otherwise group-oriented all by your lonesome feel odd? If you do, that’s okay; you’re not alone. The LA Times interviewed almost 100 people and found that only 30% of them would be willing to go to the movies alone. That fact is shocking to me because it’s not like you spend those two hours in the dark interacting with anything but the screen. I’m here to tell you that not only is doing stuff alone okay, it’s actually grounding, awesome and highly affirming.

Doing things alone comes more naturally to some than others. In my experience, some people are completely incapable of doing things if they’re not with others. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first boils down to what psychologists call the “Spotlight Effect.”

There’s a common thread among people who hesitate doing things by themselves. It’s because they’re afraid of how they’ll be perceived. The inner-monologue goes like this: “Gee, I’d really love to go check out that new Cuban restaurant, but if I’m eating by myself, everyone will assume I’m a loser for not being able to get someone to go with me.” The good news is, no one is going to notice (and even if they did, why should you care what they think?). The reason no one will notice you is “the spotlight effect” which is the natural tendency to think that others notice us much more than they actually do– and it’s been tested and proven through the cunning use of bright yellow Barry Manilow t-shirts. Students were forced to wear these bright shirts to class and were asked how many students they thought would notice. The subjects thought, on average, about 50% of the class would notice them. In reality, fewer than 20% of the students noticed the shirts. People are usually so lost in their own thoughts that they don’t pay attention to what’s happening around them.

Once you’ve started to realize that no one is really paying attention anyway, your self-consciousness will morph into self-awareness – one of the five competencies of emotional intelligence. In today’s workplace, study after study has confirmed that “EQ is more important than IQ” when it comes to being an effective employee.

Now that others’ perceptions aren’t stopping you from enjoying time alone, what’s stopping you? Is it that you’re afraid you’re not very much fun alone? Or that, even though you’re fun, you’d have more fun if you have your friends with you? Are you going to be at all surprised when I tell you that’s a fallacy as well?

The Science of “FOMO”

Let’s pop over to Georgetown University, where Rebecca Hamilton is a professor of marketing to prove why you’re more fun alone than you think you are. Her take on the situation is that people often underestimate how much they will enjoy taking in a show, gallery-hopping or going to that movie on their lonesome. It’s becoming especially acute as the trends indicate that people are working more hours, marrying later in their life, and ultimately coming up with less and less free time. If enjoying what free time you have is contingent on finding others to join you, you’re going to go from having serious FOMO (that is, “Fear Of Missing Out”) to straight up MO.

Professor Hamilton ran loads of studies on people from all different backgrounds about how much fun they thought they would have doing an activity by themselves versus how much fun they actually had when they did them. Across the board, the results were consistent that people actually had about as much fun doing fun activities alone as they thought they would accompanied by friends. See? When you let go of the judging mind, it turns out you’re pretty fun after all!

This is understandable. After all, it’s hard to predict how much fun you’ll have until you’ve actually done it. But it’s not just about fun. Time spent alone is time spent with your thoughts. It’s basically a mindfulness practice. In the modern world, many of us have grown increasingly afraid to be left alone with our thoughts. Making time to intentionally be alone is a wonderful way to have a great internal conversation with yourself. Getting out and observing yourself in the world is sure to reveal things about you that you might otherwise have missed.

The Science of Alone Time

There are some other perks to spending time with yourself too. The most important one is that you get to do what you want to do, when you want to do it and how you want to do it. When you’re not having to consider anyone else, you can focus on making yourself happy (and, trust me, you totally deserve that). By that same token, you don’t have to worry about validation, something research suggests we’re always looking for, even with the closest of friends.

So do it! Go to the game by yourself. Check out that band that none of your friends are really into. Eat lunch alone at work. Say with pride, “Table for one, please.” Enjoy having both armrests to yourself at the movies. If you get really good at it, go on a solo vacation and find out what happens when you’ve got time away to do nothing but treat yourself to a good time. Spending time alone can help you truly enjoy the moment, become more confident, clear your thoughts, and be a better version of yourself.

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