The Art of Being Alone (In a World That Wants Us to Be Together)

"Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self."—May Sarton

Our culture loves an extrovert. Be loud. Grab the spotlight. Radiate confidence. In the United States, these are the qualities that spell success both socially and in the workplace. Just look at our President. (This isn't a cultural universal, by the way—in fact, it's the opposite in China.)

Look at the word loner. As journalist Anneli Rufus points out in Loner's Manifesto, it's a crime writer's word, the moniker slapped on the mentally unstable "lone gunman" before he brings about tragedy. But this is actually the destruction of what she calls pseudo-loners who, because of rejection, seek revenge. "They do not wish to be alone", she writes, "their dislike of being alone is what drives them to violence."

People often use the word "antisocial" to describe loners, but antisocial means harmful to society. If you're an introvert, you're likely just unsocial or less social. Being a loner—which accounts for about 20 percent of the population—isn't about being creepy, pathetic, or deranged. It's not even so much a personality type, science says, as it is a kind of brain. While extroverts gather their energy from being among others, introverts are energized by time alone.

So how can loners cope in a world that wants us to gather together? Here are some habits to adopt:

Socialize in the way you want

Where introverts run into trouble is when they inadvertently offend the people they love by turning down invitations for parties and group hangs. Show the people in your life you care by regularly scheduling one-on-one or small group gatherings with your friends and loved ones.

"OK, so an introvert isn't going to be the person grandstanding at the centre of a room, but they definitely can hold a deep one-on-one conversation," says Natasha Koifman President of NKPR, "I don't seek to dazzle an entire room, but hone in on those people with whom I have an authentic connection."

This is a tactic that makes as much sense professionally as it does socially. If you can't participate when the office gets lunch as a pack, make an effort to invite coworkers for coffee for more meaningful one-on-one time.

Opt out of small talk

As if a required social event weren't hurdle enough, the banal drone of small talk can send an introvert over the edge. Small talk is frequently described as "social lubricant," but introverts would prefer to go without it and "instead discuss how people can call themselves ethical vegans and at the same time support GMO soy production, or intelligently converse about why science is set to disprove the benefits of organics and simultaneously study the rapidly heating oceans and vast dead zones while failing to see a connection to chemical agriculture," writes Megan Telpner.

The next time you're in a social situation, push yourself to have the kind of social interaction you want to have. Don't be afraid to ask to big questions—about the role of literature in a time of decreasing attention spans or the paradox of last-chance travel. Most people are likely as bored of talking about the weather as you are.

Arrive late, leave early—without being a jerk

When you do make the effort to attend a big social event, make the most of your time there. It's more meaningful to spend fifteen minutes chatting with the happy couple at a wedding reception than hitting the open bar all night and hanging on the edges of the dance floor for hours. If you're going to drop in, be sure to get face time with the hosts, and don't slip away without saying goodbye.

Get outside

Time outside brings joy and relaxation to introverts and extroverts alike, but introverts especially may find time in nature is the reset button they need during the work day or in a period of time with unusually high social demands. Studies show time outside boosts creativity and focus, so If you're trying to solve a problem at work, take a walk outside. One study found walking increased 81 percent of participants' creativity, but walking outside produced "the most novel and highest quality analogies."

Work on your art

In his work on the psychology of creativity at California's San Jose State University, Gregory Feist found that a sense of autonomy—along with openness and confidence—are personality traits commonly associated with creativity. That sense of autonomy may include "a lack of concern for social norms" and "a preference for being alone." In his research on both artists and scientists, Feist found that one of the most prominent features of creative people is their comparative disinterest in socializing, the BBC reported. Time alone working is necessary for the reflection and observation of the creative process. (There's a reason why writing has been called the loneliest profession.) While studies have shown a correlation between creativity and introversion, most striking is the greater enjoyment introverts seem to reap from creative endeavors, Psychology Today reports.

So say no to dinner out and give yourself the pleasure of your easel and paint brushes. Bring your journal to the bluff above the river and write. Give yourself the time to process the world your brain requires—and then make something beautiful from it.

The Takeaway

Know thyself, and then be the best version of you. "If you're an introvert," writes Susan Cain in her bestselling book Quiet, "find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up. You enjoy relative freedom from the temptations of superficial prizes like money and status. Indeed, your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you. But when you're focused on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless." Use it wisely, loner.

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