Photo by Vadim Pacev
By Scott Young
“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast, or a god.”
~ Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon may have exaggerated, but his point was clear: most people despise being alone. People will surround themselves in harmful relationships to avoid solitude. They will change their clothes, hobbies or even their religious beliefs just to fit in. And, the idea of being completely alone in the world is a common theme in horror films.
However, there is a power in being able to find contentment in solitude. Bacon, wasn’t far off when he ascribed god-like powers to the people who can enjoy solitude. If you are able to be happy alone, then even in the emptiest times in life you can find peace and even joy.
I’m not suggesting solitude is better than being with people. Simply that it’s impossible to completely avoid aloneness in life, so it’s worth having a strategy to find joy in those moments. Enjoying solitude can also give you an independence that makes you less desperate with friends and less likely to cling onto lousy relationships.
How to Be Happy Alone
My experience with this challenge started several years ago. I lived in a small town, hundreds of kilometers away from any major center. I had few close friends in my city, and I didn’t connect well with the people around me. Additionally, I was planning to move in a year, which reduced my motivation to improve my social skills, which had been lacking.
At first, I found the solitude unbearable. I had other friends in the past, so I wasn’t used to being nearly completely isolated. I can definitely say this wasn’t a fun experience, but it did teach me a valuable lesson about how to enjoy my time alone.
By working on my internal life, I was able to not only bear the solitude, but actually enjoy it. Even now that I have many friends and my social skills have improved considerably, I still benefit from the lessons I learned enjoying solitude. It gave me an inner calm and independence that means that, although I place value in relationships and work to improve them, I don’t feel desperate to stay in any friendship or relationship that doesn’t fulfill me.
If you’re caught in the same situation I was, I feel there are two steps you can take to turn it around:
- Learn to draw contentment from your time alone.
- Improve your social skills and build new connections.
Each approach on it’s own is insufficient. If you only work on drawing contentment from your time alone, that approach can be unsatisfying if you still feel isolation is forced upon you. But if you work on your social skills and peaceful solitude in unison, you can enjoy the present while increasing your options for the future.
Side Note: Improving your social skills is outside the scope of this article, but if you’d like to read more, I’d suggest reading: Succeed Socially
Loneliness is Forced Solitude
In my opinion, a great deal of the pain caused by loneliness is due to a lack of control. Solitude is easy to enjoy when it isn’t forced. I think most people enjoy a few hours or even a few days to themselves if their regular lives are full of activity and interesting people. In fact, many people complain of a lack of space when deeply involved in relationships, which shows that solitude isn’t universally bad.
But when you lack control over your situation, solitude becomes loneliness. If you feel your isolation wasn’t chosen, and you can’t control it, that exile can be unbearable. The key, in my opinion, to regaining enjoyment in solitude and reducing loneliness, is to regain some control.
Part of that control can come from simply improving your social life directly. If you practice your social skills directly, that can boost your feeling of control and make the world seem less isolating, even if you’re still finding it difficult.
However, for some people this process will be slow or difficult. It may be hard for you to make new friends, either because you’re social muscles are still weak, or because you are stuck in a lousy situation, such as working at an isolating job or stuck in an unfriendly, small town. In that case, I think it also helps to gain control in another way.
Perfecting Your Inner World
The breakthrough for me in learning to enjoy solitude was in improving my inner world first. I may have had difficulties controlling my solitude from the outside, but I could control my inner world so that it would be more pleasant to live in.
As an analogy, imagine your house is constantly being attacked by violent weather. You have two options: you can try to change the weather (by, moving your house, for example) or you can improve the foundation of the house so that, even in violent weather, it is more comfortable to live in. The first approach is directly working on your external environment, the latter is perfecting your inner world.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories of wandering ascetics who can live without people, shelter or food for days. People who seem at peace and content, despite total isolation and harsh conditions. While stories of these people may be somewhat exaggerated, I think they are a shining example of the benefits of building a strong inner world. When the scaffolding of your inner life is strong, you can be comfortable in almost any environment.
Just as there are many ways to build a house, there are many ways to build the foundation of your inner life. However, I’m going to suggest three, as these have been the most successful for me in my own life:
- Build order
- Create drive
- Find meaning
1. Build Order
One way you can gain more control over your inner life is to bring more order to it. I’ve found building a routine centered around activities I care about is one of the best ways to turn otherwise painful isolation into enjoyable solitude.
I usually do this by installing habits. For me, activities I care about are exercising, working on personal projects, reading and learning new skills. You can build a habit out of any of these activities by committing to do the habit every day for at least one month. Those habits will then run more or less automatically.
The side-effect of choosing this route to enjoying solitude is that it usually improves other areas of your life as well. When I did this, I found my productivity increased, my physical fitness went up dramatically and I read hundreds of books in just a few years.
Even now, when I have a longer period without as much human contact, I am far happier with an ordered personal life. That order allows you to stay active and engaged, even when your brain would rather shut down from the lack of social stimulus. The order also provides a sense of peace that comes from knowing you are in control of your world.
2. Create Drive
Another way to improve your inner life is to build a fire of enthusiasm for something. If you have a passion or sense of meaning for your daily routine, any temporary isolation is far easier to enjoy. I’ve found the best way to create a drive is to set goals and plans of action to accomplish them. The goals need to be tied to something you have an interest in, but the act of creating the plan can often start a cycle of motivation.
If you already have goals, focusing on your goals can enable you to enjoy solitude more. I always found, even in my most isolated moments, that when I recaptured the idea of what I really wanted out of life, I felt much better. Goals can’t replace having a social life, but they can allow you to push through a temporary patch of isolation.
This route can sometimes be difficult if you aren’t sure where to start, so if you aren’t sure what might interest you enough to work passionately on it, try starting with one of the other paths.
3. Find Meaning
You might not be able to control every part of your life, but you can control the meaning in your life. If you can create a purpose for your current isolation, that doubles your strength in moving through any obstacle. For me, I decided the meaning of my current isolation was to allow me more time to build personal skills while I worked on my social life from the outside.
Sometimes people will talk about the difference between good pain and bad pain at a gym. It’s actually a silly idea: how can any pain be good, all of it hurts? The difference is that there is a meaning for the good pain, a purpose it serves as a process in making you stronger. The bad pain, alternatively, just hurts for no purpose.
The same analogy applies to solitude: there is good solitude and bad solitude. The good solitude has a constructive purpose. It may still hurt occasionally, but if you know what it’s for and why it benefits you, the solitude can be enjoyable (just as some people love the pain they get from the gym). Your goal is to turn bad solitude into good solitude by defining the meaning it has for you.
If you think there is no possible reason for your being alone, think harder. You can probably come up with many opportunities it can allow, if you try. The solitude might help you focus on another important goal you have, give you a chance to increase your independence or even just give you a better appreciation of the relationships you do have.
Are You a God or Wild Beast?
My guess is neither, but you can still enjoy solitude if you set out the right intention. Solitude may take some time and practice to master, but it can allow you to achieve an incredible sense of inner peace and calmness.
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