Thursday 22 August 2019

The souls who crave solitude - why some people find bliss in spending time alone

Is a table for one your idea of an awkward evening alone or a blissful excuse to spend time with your thoughts? Here, Alex Meehan talks to a selection of people who love to be by themselves, and finds out that you don't have to be an introvert to prefer your own company…

'For many people, time spent alone is essential to their mental well-being'
'For many people, time spent alone is essential to their mental well-being'
Colin Harmon relaxing at Gertrude Cafe in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath

How do you feel about being on your own - does the thought of a night in alone fill you with dread or joy?

What about being stranded on a desert island - would you be lonely or would you relish the time to yourself? Are you the kind of person who goes to the cinema on their own, enjoys eating dinner alone or even holidays solo?

For many people, time spent alone is essential to their mental well-being, while others regard it as a strange quirk of personality. Some people, typical extroverts, even have a word for people who don't seek out the company of others - loners.

But just how much alone time is healthy and how much is a sign that it might be time to seek help? The answer depends on the person, because one person's ideal quiet night in on their own is another person's depressing night of solitude.

"I recently booked a night away in a hotel on my own, and to be honest it was fantastic," says Thomas Crosse, also known as Crossy. With a demanding job as a DJ and presenter with the Dublin radio station FM104, where he produces the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Crossy says he is more than happy to spend time on his own. In fact, he craves it.

"My ideal night is to be home alone with some takeaway Thai food, some wine and some great TV. I talk all week and deal with people all week, so I need time to just turn off and not feel under pressure to perform for anyone," he says.

So what did he do on his night in a hotel? "I went to the gym and the pool, had a few beers in the bar and spent the evening watching TV. It was great not having to worry about what someone else wanted to do. I could do what I want and I highly recommend it."

He's planning a trip to Rome soon and has deliberately arranged to travel on his own.

"I've always wanted to go and I've said it to loads of people, but they're either going out with someone who doesn't want to go, or they don't have enough holidays left from work to take the time, so I'm going by myself," says Crosse.

"Don't get me wrong, I love my friends and enjoy their company, but I have absolutely no problem booking a restaurant table for one and going out for dinner with myself. It can be difficult to coordinate schedules with friends when everyone is so busy, so if I want to try out a new restaurant, I'll happily go on my own with a newspaper or even just my phone to read."

Colin Harmon relaxing at Gertrude Cafe in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Colin Harmon relaxing at Gertrude Cafe in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath

Emma Jane Leeson lives outside Prosperous in Co Kildare and works in the human resources department of the multinational Kerry Group. She writes children's fiction in her spare time and her series for kids, The Adventures of Johnny Magory, has been well received. Carving out time to be alone is a crucial part of her mental health routine.

"My job means I see people all day every day and it's extremely tiring. I run the social media accounts of the company I work for so, to be honest, I feel I've had enough of dealing with people quite quickly. I have to get out, be on my own with no humans around. I make an exception for the dog and my favourite thing to do is to walk on my own around Ballynafagh Lake near where I live," she says.

"If I don't do it, I become short-tempered and my mood is massively affected. I am drained by other people and need the release.

"Ironically, I know I'm an extrovert and do like being around people but I have this introverted tendency and once I've had enough, I've had enough."

Leeson says she's always been like this, but in her mid-20s the need for alone time started becoming more pronounced. "For me, it's correlated with being in a corporate and people-focused environment. I recently handed in my notice as I want to give full-time writing a shot and of course, it'll be heaven to be in my own company while I write. We'll see if it lasts though. Perhaps I'll get lonely," she says.

There's a fine line between voluntary solitude and the kind of loneliness that can impact on a person's mental health. Plenty of people experience loneliness and find it far from enjoyable. According to consultant psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy, while some people are naturally introverted and comfortable being alone, there are others who crave interactions with others and can become depressed if they don't have it.

"There are also other individuals who would like to be part of a group but who experience social anxiety and find being around people stressful and difficult. It's important to distinguish between the two. One group chooses solitude for healthy reasons and the other group make choices to be alone because it's the only way they know to cope with their distress," he says.

Loneliness is a big issue for the Irish public. Dr Murphy was part of the National Loneliness Taskforce which published a report that concluded that involuntary loneliness can take three years off a person's life.

"It has the equivalent effect on a person's health of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and affects around one in 10 people in Ireland. On the flipside, there are plenty of people who seek out being on their own and have no negative consequences as a result," he says.

According to Dr Murphy, it's a scientific fact that some people are extroverted and some are introverted - being one or the other has no great bearing on a person's overall level of happiness.

"Some people are happy doing their own thing and being on their own, while another person in the same situation might find themselves experiencing high degrees of loneliness. People have different ways of engaging with the world around them," he says.

Knowing what kind of person you are can be a valuable tool in making good life decisions that work well for you. For example, Dr Murphy suggests that a person's nature can make them more or less likely to be happy in certain jobs.

"One person might find the stress of dealing with the public too much, while an office job might be ideal. Conversely, there are people who might be bored silly at a desk and very happy interacting with people all day long. There's nothing wrong with either of those - it's a case by case thing," he says. "Social connection is important for everyone but it's the degree that differs."

There are some extreme cases of people shutting themselves away from daily life. In Japan, such people are known as hikikomori and an estimated half a million of them live as virtual hermits, rarely, if ever, leaving their homes. These people withdraw from life and the pressures they feel to be successful, hold down jobs and be functional members of a society that can expect a lot from its members.

A controversial theory about the cause of this condition is that it's brought on by the isolating influence of modern technology. Initially psychologists thought that Japanese society was uniquely susceptible to this condition, but a 2015 study by Japanese psychiatrists found cases of the condition in the US, South Korea and India, too.

Few people would argue this is a healthy reaction to stress and pressure, but there is no doubt that there is a lot of pressure on people to present a public face through social media that is often at odds with how they feel about themselves.

Róisín Connaughton is a 29-year-old student in her final year of a medical degree, and to say she leads a busy life would be an understatement. Her time is spent in hospitals dealing with patients, doctors, tutors and the public, in libraries studying, or at work trying to support herself.

"I really like spending time on my own, and I don't mean on my own in a coffee shop or in a shopping centre, I mean at home alone with nobody else around. I find that time almost impossible to get, but it's the one type of time that makes things slow down," she says.

"I need to get away from the expectations of others and the pressure to interact with others. I'm easily distracted and get drawn into thinking about what's going on around me. I'm very much an extrovert - I do like other people and I'm quite outgoing - but I really need time on my own to empty my brain and be myself."

Sleep is a particular challenge for Connaughton because her brain runs so fast that it can take quite a while for her to wind down enough to fall asleep: "My mind races and I need to calm it down with quiet and solitude to be able to really relax. I sleep much better when I've had time by myself to do nothing. I don't even read a book or watch TV - I just do nothing. And that can be hard to explain to people."

Connaughton says that her situation has arisen throughout her 20s and she doesn't put it down to the pressures of her studies.

"The funny thing is that as children, everyone has loads of time to themselves. You spend time being bored and finding things to do with your time, but as an adult your time is so heavily scheduled that you often don't have any free time at all unless you carve it out. Some adults are literally never alone and find it difficult to be on their own. I'm the opposite," she says.

The pressure of dealing with people is something that Colin Harmon well understands.

Harmon is well known on Dublin's coffee scene as the owner of the 3fe coffee shops and Gertrude restaurant, and despite having worked directly with the public for years, he describes himself as an introvert.

"I no longer work directly on the coffee bar but I did it for years, and while you have hundreds of interactions with people every day, they're not typical interactions. It's not like meeting your friends or meeting people on an equal footing - you're in the hospitality industry, so you have to be positive with everyone. That's not normal," he says.

"It's incredibly draining and you have to present a slightly fake gloss to the public. Even when you're talking to your colleagues behind the coffee bar, you're still slightly on display to customers, so you guard what you say and make sure you're being professional."

Harmon's favourite time of day is his hour-long commute home in the evening.

Driving his car, he can be alone and either sits in silence or listens to podcasts - either way, it's time he feels is absolutely crucial to staying centred.

"When I get home, I have kids and a wife who deserve my attention and who have their own worries and concerns that they want to communicate, and I need to be there for them too. And I love being there for them, but I also need time to be on my own and recuperate," he says.

"I go running as much as I can, despite being not very good at it. For me, it's about the silence and time alone... as much as it is about exercise. It's about headspace."

Harmon says he has old friends who find his 'coffee personality' entertaining as they know that he's not naturally an extroverted person. He says when he shops for clothes, he prefers to avoid busy periods and hates it when shop assistants ask if they can help.

"I can go up on a stage in front of thousands of people to speak publicly no problem, but in restaurants I get my wife to order the food to avoid the social interaction. I guess we're all a mix of these contradictions."

Picture: Frank McGrath

Picture: Steve Humphreys

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