When was the last time you deliberately chose to spend time by yourself, doing something that you enjoyed, or else enjoying the luxury of doing nothing? If it was a long time ago or–worse–you can’t remember ever doing that, you should consider changing your habits and making some time to be by yourself. It will help you stay calmer and better handle the emotional ups and downs we all encounter.
There’s plenty of evidence that choosing to spend time in solitude has benefits for your mental health. And most people seem to find solitude necessary for real relaxation. In the BBC’s “Rest Test,” participants chose from a long list of activities to identify those they found most restful. Some 18,000 people in 134 countries took the test, and reading, an activity usually performed alone, was their number-one choice by a healthy margin. Spending time in nature was number two. And number three actually was spending time alone. What about spending time with friends or family? That was number 12 on the list, just ahead of drinking tea or coffee.
So you probably need to be alone in order to feel really rested. But perhaps more important, research shows that spending time on your own is one of the most effective ways to moderate the ups and downs of your emotions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, or confusion, spending time by yourself is a powerful tool to help you calm down and start feeling like yourself again.
In a series of experiments, researchers at the University of Rochester had hundreds of college students either spend 15 minutes alone or with another person, asking and answering a set of questions that have been shown not to affect mood one way or the other. Before and after the 15-minute session either alone or with a companion, participants filled out a short survey that identified their current emotional state. It turned out that for subjects who had either strongly positive or strongly negative feelings, those feelings partially dissipated during their 15 minutes of alone time. In fact, in an experiment where subjects were asked to spend 15 minutes by themselves and away from such things as smartphones each day for a week, those calmer feelings extended somewhat into the following week when they were no longer assigned to spend time alone. That suggests that regularly spending a little time by yourself can have a lasting effect on your mood.
It also suggests that when you’re feeling angry, worried, or frightened, it’s a really good idea to take a little time by yourself to process those emotions. It’s especially important to do that before you act on your feelings, saying or doing something to your co-worker, friend, spouse, or customer that you might end up regretting later on.
How to spend time by yourself.
What if, like a lot of people, you’re unaccustomed to spending time alone and the thought of doing so makes you uncomfortable? It’s a shame to miss the many benefits of spending time alone, which, among other things, has been shown to enhance creativity. Rather than give up on alone time, try a few simple activities that might help you enjoy being alone.
First of all, don’t do anything you think you won’t enjoy, and do your best to make sure that your chosen activity really will be a pleasure for you. As a restorative yoga teacher once said to me, “You’re preparing for an extremely fussy guest, and the guest is you.” Now might be a good time to splurge on that expensive pumpkin mocha at your favorite cafe, or take the time to go all by yourself to that movie you’ve been wanting to see. I particularly love going to movies by myself. With no one there to distract me or for me to worry about, I find I get more deeply involved in the story on the screen.
If that doesn’t appeal, try spending some time by yourself in your favorite cafe or restaurant with a journal to write in and/or a book to read. Writing in a journal is one of the best ways there is to smooth out your emotions. Going for a walk, especially if you can do it in a natural setting, is another way you might enjoy being on your own, and that has proven benefits for your health as well. Or, if you can have your home to yourself, you might enjoy staying home alone, working on a solo art project or reading.
You could do any of these things–or anything else that you find really enjoyable. Perhaps you enjoy fly fishing. Whatever you choose to do make sure to do something all by yourself on a regular basis. You’ll end up healthier and happier. And you’ll probably be a better friend, co-worker or partner as well.
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