Monday, May 26, 2014

Alone without being lonely

I’ve spent most of my life as a single person. And therefore, have spent a lot of time alone. I’ve also spent a good deal of time feeling lonely. After a google search on how to be alone without feeling lonely, I wasn’t satisfied. So I decided I could probably write my own ideas. I know that doesn’t make much sense—if I feel lonely sometime, what would I know about this topic?

I think there are two components to my life that explain why I’ve spent so much time alone. First, I consider myself an introvert. I do enjoy the company of others—but usually in smaller groups, and afterwards I need some downtime to recharge. Second, I’m a biologist. Not all biologists move around—but many do. Many take seasonal jobs in various places and end up traveling a lot. So, after living in several different states, I have finally landed a permanent job. I have friends all over the country—but not many locally. It may be harder for me, as an introvert, to meet new people. And then I move away from the people I meet.

The up side of all this travel is that I’ve seen many beautiful places. And most of my travel as been solo. Most people would think I was crazy for traveling across the country multiple times by myself. But I enjoyed it. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. Some people are wonderful travel companions—but I’ve found they are few and far between. Sometimes I enjoyed the company of strangers on my route. And during all this time, I got to know myself—which is something I feel many people miss out on when they are constantly in relationships. You need to learn to depend on yourself, not on others, for your own happiness.

So, does that mean I’m always happy? No. For me, loneliness comes when I’m at home, not when I’m traveling. It comes when I’m home on a holiday weekend, far from my family, in a town where I just moved and don’t know anyone. Yes, I could go out and do something on my own, but sometimes you just don’t want to. Sometimes you just want to be with someone you connect with, someone to laugh with, someone you are comfortable with.

Loneliness is different for different people—some people are lonely when they are surrounded by people. Others have recently lost someone who was close to them. Some have been in a relationship so long, they don’t remember how to get back to solo. And others have spent plenty of time alone, but just need a break.

I have a few suggestions for things to try when you are alone and don’t want to feel lonely.

1. Cooking. I’m not the best cook, and I very rarely cook for others. So I tend to make fast meals, and stuff my face quickly in front of the TV. What’s the point in making a full meal when you are single? Well, it can actually be kind of fun. Plan a meal, go to the store for the ingredients, cook it while listening to music, and go all out on presentation. If you want to share your creation, post a pic online (Facebook, Instagram, etc.). This makes it feel more important, takes more time, and it will also taste better. My friends may hate that I post food pics, but I do it for me.

2. Exercise. For me, especially more recently, fitness is key. I could be in the worst mood in the world, go to Crossfit, and come home in the best mood in the world. Find something that you enjoy—anything that gets your body moving—and do it often. If you don’t do well exercising by yourself, use groups for motivation. Running groups, boot camp in the park, yoga, etc. It doesn’t even have to be that expensive. I enjoy hiking and walking too. And it’s a good way to meet people—although going to a big gym like planet fitness and running on the treadmill is not usually as beneficial.

3. Pets. My cats make me laugh and keep me sane on bad days. And they give me snuggles when I’m sad. If you can’t have your own pet, I’d suggest volunteering for an organization where you have access to fluffy happy animals. I fostered 14 different kittens while I was in graduate school—it was cheap, fun, and I knew I was helping them find forever homes, even if it was hard at times. (If pets really aren’t your thing, maybe kids are, coach a team or volunteer with children, see below).

4. Volunteer. This doesn’t have to be anything big. Helping others always makes you feel good. Maybe just helping a friend or a neighbor move. Or joining an organization that has lots of activities. I used to coach soccer – 2nd grade girls. They sure were a handful, and yet you couldn’t be unhappy around them. Everyone has some skill that they can share with other people.

5. Learn something new or do something new. This has always been a little harder for me to do. I always want to go take a class in something—say pottery—and then I chicken out. It would get you out of the house and meeting new people. But even learning about something at home is good—I’ve learned about orchid care, nutrition/fitness, and other things. I try to come up with things that I have always told myself I suck at—and then I make a plan to do them. It’s a great confidence builder.

6. Go do things by yourself. Eating alone at a real sit down restaurant was something I finally started doing recently. I just felt so awkward. But plenty of people do it, and it’s not as bad as it sounds. If you REALLY want to do something but are putting it off because you have no one to go with, just go do it. It’s very liberating when you do. It’s better than regretting not doing it at all. Travel. Go see a movie. Go to a museum. If you catch yourself thinking about what others must think, just gently push it out of your mind. It’s ok to be by yourself. It’s ok to be independent. Remind yourself that you don’t need to rely on others for enjoyment.

7. Call friends. If you are like me and no one is local, call someone. Sometimes I forget, in this world of texting and Facebook, that I can still call someone. Or try Skype. Even find an online forum or chat room where you can discuss interests with other people.

8. Avoid Facebook and other social media. I have a love hate relationship with Facebook—as many probably do. There is nothing worse than feeling bored or lonely and then seeing friends (even if they are simply far away) doing fun things without you and posting a bagillion pictures of it on Facebook. On the other hand, Facebook can connect you to local happenings and local people. So, my suggestion is to try and use FB for good, not evil, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of viewing others as “living the life” while you are at home sulking about having nothing to do. (Easier said than done, believe me)

9. One I have not tried yet. Meeting up with complete strangers sounds kind of horrible to me—I’m not a fan of awkward stuff like this. But I think it’s mostly in my head and I imagine these people will be very welcoming of new comers. If I try to get over this one, I hope you will too. Meet ups have great potential—meet new like-minded people, or at least people who enjoy the same activities. If you don’t like it, you never have to do one again!

10. Nature. Maybe the sound of walking out in the woods does not sound fun to you. But this is my all time favorite. Maybe it’s because of my interest birds and other critters—but really, can anyone look at a beautiful sunset or a flower and not smile?? Go outside. Get some sun. Listen to the birds, pay attention to the flowers. Don’t worry about identifying them (unless you are a geek like me and want to). Take pictures. Take your time. Take it all in. Sometimes I even forget how much this helps me feel connected to something bigger than myself. And it’s so simple.

I know being alone all the time gets old. Trust me. No one wants to be alone all the time. But there’s no magic button to push and change your situation, so you might as well try to enjoy the time you have—even if it is just you. Try not to dwell on the problem, and instead create an action plan that leads you to a solution. Be brave! (Yes, I often need to take my own advice)

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain

P.S. Watch this video.

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