A teen privately asked me during his physical appointment if it was okay that he enjoyed being alone. He was fine with it, but his parents questioned his wellness. He had a girlfriend, played sports, hung out with his friends, got good grades, and didn’t feel sad.
That all seemed okay to me. In fact, he seemed quite balanced and wise beyond his years.
Countless philosophers have declared the power of quiet reflection. Scientific studies have echoed the benefits of being alone. A person discovers more creative solutions when they think through a simple or very complex problem on their own than with a team. The experience of solitude in nature has been linked to increased problem-solving skills. A study on fifth through ninth grade students showed that those with a moderate amount of solitude were less self-conscious and had a more positive emotional state. Having intermediate amounts of seclusion also increases empathy and happiness.
Even as an extrovert myself — energized by connecting with people and being immersed in noisy laughter — I have also developed an appreciation of being alone. I might have adapted to this being an only child; spending time by myself was a necessary part of growing up. My joy in solitude might come from being a pianist for many years, practicing for hours alone, and from being on the cross country team, a solo exercise I signed up for by process of elimination because I didn’t know how to play any other sport. I continue to pursue some activities alone, though never lonely and always fulfilled.
Running with a buddy has helped me bond with new and old friends, but I mostly enjoy running by myself. I’m able to motivate myself to run and workout, and I can keep the pace I want without worrying about keeping up or waiting for a partner. I can also focus on enjoying the scenery and change my path last minute as I please. I mostly listen to podcasts on the trail, sometimes music. Occasionally, I’ll go earbud-less so I can quietly brainstorm writing ideas, psych myself up for some tasks I have to do later, or think nothing at all. Alone, I finish my run feeling refreshed.
Without much free time, I often batch shopping trips when I have a few categories of items I’m looking for — most recently, beach towels, shower curtains, nail polish, and plastic home organization containers. I run my errands with an agenda and going out with a friend would slow me down in the store and probably outside the store, too, if we have to stop for food. On my own, my gastronomical needs can be fulfilled with just a few snack bars and a bottle of water. I also have a quirk about parking in between stores I’m visiting so I don’t have to keep moving the car. Most people may find the longer walks annoying, so I shop alone both by choice and by necessity of not irritating my friends.
Suffering from shiny object syndrome makes me a very problematic partner for cleaning and organizing. I can take an hour cleaning out one drawer, two hours if the drawer contains photos. Pennies will also slow me down. Once, I spent four hours organizing all the pennies by year. That was before med school and kids, of course. When my parents were unavailable to pack up my childhood home after selling it, their friends came to help. They knew me well, so I was assigned a small corner of the house while they cleaned up the rest. They finished the whole house while I was about three-quarters done my room. I also make a mess in the process. While I insist to my husband that I have a system and that it must get worse before it gets better, he insists that my system is chaos. But I insist I’m right, so I prefer cleaning and organizing on my own without my husband and his input.
At an out-of-town conference in Dallas, a colleague once left me to go have dinner with one of her local friends. She asked if I would be fine by myself. Conferences have become my chance to enjoy solo space. When I stayed in Washington, D.C. on my first trip away from my 9-month-old firstborn, I went running on my own to the National Mall. I made a stop in the Air and Space Museum, enjoying two IMAX movies complete with a large bag of warm popcorn. Now, with two kids constantly tugging at me at home, a full-time job in a busy pediatric practice, and in anticipation of spending the next few days mingling, I assured my friend that I would be more than fine. It was exhilarating to digest my Grubhub-ordered pho without having to be a mommy bird sharing my meal with a couple of smaller mouths. I ate my dinner in solitary, satisfying silence.