It's Saturday night and the queue at the cinema box office looks like an entrance to Noah's Ark – couples queueing two by two, laughing, chatting and holding hands, the younger ones smooching.
And there you are, all alone at the glass window. "One please," you say. You buy a single coffee and a small popcorn. Inside the cinema, among all the whispering couples, you sit in blissful silence, waiting to be sucked, distractionless, into the film. Afterwards, it takes ages for the spell to break.
Once, seeing a lone head with empty seats on either side in the darkened cinema rows might have meant 'weirdo' if you were male or 'saddo' if you were female. Not any more.
Going to the cinema alone – even during peak-hour Saturday date night – is just one of the many pleasures of single life. As is the uncomplicated delight of dining alone. Your favourite place, good food, and guaranteed great company, with added people-watching opportunities.
Eating alone is a gift. You might initially bring a newspaper as a prop, but this is soon discarded in favour of being entirely present in the moment; of noticing everything – the food, the place, the people. You find yourself lingering, slowing down. This does not mean, however, that you love doing absolutely everything alone. Connection is vital for humans and we all have our own boundaries of when fun with one becomes un-fun.
Personally, I don't go to the theatre alone, because it is a sociable event, with interval chats and drinks, unlike the solitary heaven of cinema.
We fear arriving at parties alone, and like to have moral support for starting new projects, even if it's just pottery for beginners. But really, this is just habituated thinking that we look like numpties when we turn up anywhere unaccompanied.
Solo travel sorts this out. Being alone with yourself for weeks – or even months – on end means you watch your independence and confidence grow as your need for others diminishes. Then you can choose to tune in and tune out of the company of other people as you wish, rather than feeling a bit peculiar on your own.
As that romantic date in mid-February bears down upon us in a juggernaut of single red roses, many of us will identify not with Valentine's cards full of mushy love poems, but with the roses themselves – gloriously single. Unattached. Self-contained.
You make me whole, insist our love songs; you complete me. But what if you feel nicely complete already, thanks very much?
No matter how hard magazines, governments, family members or mortgage lenders try to persuade you differently, being single is becoming a more and more popular way of life.
'Single' used to particularly denote 'sad' if you were a woman – note the radically different connotation between 'bachelor' and 'spinster'.
Bachelors have pads and parties; spinsters have cats, crochet and cobwebbed vaginas.
Bachelors have George Clooney as a figurehead; spinsters used to have Jennifer Aniston (before her recent engagement), or 'Poor Jen' as she is known in the media. Poor rich, gorgeous, successful Jen, with her string of hot lovers – exactly the same as George, except female and perceived as sad for being single. Or for being a serial dater, or whatever she does that isn't marriage and motherhood.
Not much has changed in our attitudes to single women since Helen Gurley Brown wrote 'Sex and the Single Girl' in 1962: "A single woman's biggest problem is coping with the people who are trying to marry her off."
Here is a modern cautionary tale of two women friends. Both were single – they went on holiday together, socialised a lot and did plenty of interesting stuff in their spare time.
Friend A was happy with her lot, but Friend B felt that being single was getting a big Bridget Jonesy, and she worried that if she didn't do something about it, she would end up single forever, which she considered a bad thing. She duly married, bought a house, had a baby.
Now she has everything she thought she wanted – a husband, a Volvo in the driveway and a child. She is tired, overworked, never has sex and never goes out. She and her husband are in couples counselling.
Meanwhile, Friend A – still tragically single – has just come back from another yoga holiday in Dahab, has started a new job and continues to have a varied social life, thanks to her wide circle of friendships. She has lovers, and goes on lots of dates. She just never invites them home.
Of course, this is not a manifesto for living and dying alone, and having your solitary corpse eaten by your pets. Being joyfully single is not about cutting yourself off from anything, least of all from the possibility of romantic love – being joyfully single is about not needing romantic love to feel validated. That's the crux.
Yet this partner-as-validation thing runs deep in our culture. While conventional wisdom – that is, traditionalists who believe that the nuclear family is the only valid social unit, and marketing departments who want you to buy their Valentine's cards and cutesy gifts – insists that single living leads to isolation, loneliness and boredom, the reality is that Western demographics are showing quite the opposite.
Living alone is considered the ultimate. Cohabiting can be stressful (do you love them enough to want their dirty socks permanently on your bedroom floor?), while shared housing (did you eat my yogurt?) is strictly for students.
Living alone "liberates young adults from difficult roommates, including good friends who turn out to be better friends when they are not always in the next room", writes New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg.
Which is why millions of us are choosing to live alone. The rise of single living is documented by Klinenberg in his book 'Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal Of Living Alone'.
More than half of all American adults are currently single, and 31 million of them – one in seven – live alone. More women than men choose to live alone, and the majority are aged between 35 and 64. In Manhattan, more than half of all homes are one-person dwellings.
America does not, however, have the highest per capita number of solo residences. Between 40pc and 50pc of all homes in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are occupied by one person only. The reason? Decent social security and economic prosperity – or at least until very recently.
Living alone is not about being a no-mates loser. It's a product of higher living standards, like eating more meat and increased car ownership. In other words, housemates are for losers. It turns out that, given the financial choice, many of us favour domestic fun with one.
What Klinenberg's research (which involved 300 in-depth interviews conducted over a period of seven years) reveals is that people who live alone are more likely to eat out, to take more exercise, go to evening classes, attend cultural events, and do more voluntary and charity work. As opposed to, you know, slumping in front of the telly with their other half and a microwaved pizza.
"The rise of living alone has been a transformative social experience," he writes. "It changes the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships. It shapes the way we build our cities and develop our economies. It touches every social group and nearly every family, no matter who we are or whether we live with others today."
Klinenberg makes an important distinction between those he refers to as singles and singletons.
Singletons are the solo dwellers – the one-bedroom apartment crowd – while singles are those who are romantically unattached, but live with others. In my case, with two kids, two dogs, a cat and a Lithuanian lodger, in a lively household with an open-door policy, as long as it doesn't involve a romantic partner moving in.
Like nuclear power, my response to cohabitation is 'no thanks' – for now. Maybe in later life, when things get more doddery.
"Living alone offers several advantages," writes Klinenberg. "It grants sexual freedom and facilitates experimentation. It gives time to mature, develop and search for true romantic love."
Well, quite. If you don't know or love yourself, you can't know or love anyone else either, which means that once the fireworks of early passion fade, you can be left with two strangers staring at each other wondering why they share a kitchen, a bedroom and a mortgage.
Hence the enormous numbers of couples who separate both from formal relationships such as marriage as well as less formal structures. The 'you complete me' thing is co-dependant nonsense; far more accurate would be a mutual 'you complement me'. Anyone seeking completion in another is building on sand; only you can complete yourself.
Which is all well and good, but what about sex? What if you don't want sex outside a committed relationship? What if the thought terrifies you, yet you don't fancy celibacy?
Any sex therapist worth the money will tell you unequivocally that the most important sexual relationship starts with the self.
Know thyself – and not just emotionally or psychologically. That means if you do connect with a romantic partner, your body will not be a metaphor for unexplored frozen tundra. Think instead lush, receptive, blooming. Kickstart yourself with tantric massage, if needs be. Just don't ignore yourself.
There are few things more attractive than a self-aware, self-contained, comfortable-in-their-own-skin kind of person. This type of single is very different from the emotionally shut-down psycho, or the needy desperado who will form a relationship with a lamppost rather than spend time alone.
Time alone is one of the great luxuries of modern living; it is time well spent, in excellent company. Enjoy it. Savour it.