The Nocturnals

While most people are fast asleep, some ultra-introverts are going about their lives, reveling in the quiet and solitude. They challenge a core assumption of psychology: that all humans need social connection.

a house in predawn light with windows lit from inside
Max Mikulecky for The Atlantic

Imagine it’s nighttime. You slip under the covers and turn out the light. Maybe you hear cars honking in the street, or voices from the other side of your apartment wall, or your partner snoring beside you; maybe it’s quiet. It might even feel like the whole world is drifting off with you.

But out in that dark night, while most people are fast asleep, there’s a whole world of people who are wide awake. They go to work, drive around, run errands at 24-hour stores. In this parallel universe, there are rarely crowds, nor traffic, nor lines; no awkward shuffling around other shoppers in the grocery aisle, no run-ins with neighbors or cacophony of email notifications. As the sun rises, these nocturnal people settle down to sleep.

They don’t all want to live this way. Some of them have to; they have sleep disorders, or night-shift jobs. But some of them want this very much—enough to seek out those night shifts, to train themselves to wake in the dark. They do this because of the isolation, not in spite of it. I talked to people who painted me a magical picture of their nighttime world: of exquisite, profound solitude; of relief; of escape.

According to most psychologists, humans are inherently social creatures; contact with others isn’t just a want—it’s a need. Deprived of it, people’s physical and mental health tends to decline. But the nocturnal people I spoke with feel they don’t need much interaction at all. “I’ve tried to hold down day jobs, but I couldn’t handle waking up early, rushing to work, and most of all just … being around people all the time,” Chris Hengen, a 26-year-old nighttime security guard living in Spokane Valley, Washington, told me via email. (He didn’t feel comfortable talking on the phone.) “I don’t have any ill will towards people, it’s just exhausting to me.” John Young, a 41-year-old network engineer living in Hammonton, New Jersey, told me he’s “more than happy” living a fairly solitary life. Young has worked night shifts on and off since the late 1990s; he prefers the peace of night, but that preference is sometimes mistaken for social anxiety or depression. In fact, he told me, he’s an introvert and this is just how he likes things. And many others I spoke with had similar reasoning.

I could understand why people might wonder, though, whether a near-total retreat from daytime society would be motivated by more than just introversion. When does a desire for solitude cross into something unhealthy? If we take the nocturnals at their word—that they simply like living this way—they complicate one of our core assumptions about human psychology: that all people have the same fundamental needs.

a man grocery shopping at night
Max Mikulecky for The Atlantic

Social interaction looked very different among ancient humans than it does today. Until about 12,000 years ago, connections were mostly limited to relatively small extended-family groups for hunting and gathering. When agricultural practices developed, larger populations began to settle down together—but interactions with strangers were still fairly limited. Those communities, though, grew larger and more complex over time. That growth exploded in the industrial revolution, as large numbers of people flooded into cities to work in factories, coming into closer contact than ever.

In his book Bowling Alone, the political scientist Robert Putnam argued that this urban boom initially spurred a flourishing of connection. But, in his view, the late 1960s and early ’70s saw those bonds begin to break down, as urban sprawl and new technologies led people to spend more time alone, watching television or driving. In 2017, once and future U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned of a dangerous “loneliness epidemic.” As he wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” In recent years, commentators have implicated loneliness in a wide swath of society’s ailments, including steep suicide rates and the opioid crisis. Twenty-first-century American culture is now often associated with profound isolation.

At the same time, much of modern life still entails being around other people whether you like it or not. From a young age, kids shuffle into schools, where they spend all day with their peers. The people I spoke with told me they’d always resisted this forced socialization. Daniel Herman, who lives in Orland Park, Illinois, and has been working a night-shift machining job since the late ’80s, told me he always wanted to be alone as a kid, though he didn’t understand why he felt that way. After high school, he started drinking more and more often; in social situations, he felt like it allowed him to interact like everyone else. But he didn’t like feeling so dependent on alcohol. “While other people are drinking and actually getting drunk,” he told me, he was “getting normal.” (Now he’s sober; he told me that living nocturnally makes it easier not to drink, because he doesn’t need to in order to power through social interactions.)

Growing up grants some freedom to pursue solitude (at the very least, you can live alone if you want to and can afford it), but adult life typically involves coming face to face with other humans—waiting in line at the bank, running into people in the park, trading pleasantries with the person across the counter. For many it also leads to workplaces where you’re expected to be “on” all the time: chatting with your cubicle neighbor, making small talk while you microwave lunch, speaking in meetings.

Roxana Alexandru, a life coach for introverts, felt stretched thin by her old office job. “I hid away from people in meeting rooms,” she told me. “It was the worst thing ever, sitting next to people and hearing them talk all day long.” Now she works remotely, and she regularly rises at 4 a.m. to work and enjoy the quiet before her kids wake up, around 6. Though it leaves her exhausted, she says she needs to take advantage of a sliver of time when those around her are asleep, when she can breathe and focus; after she helps her kids with their morning routine, she takes a two- or three-hour nap to try to make up for it. (“I love my kids so much, but I don’t think kids are meant for this type of personality,” she told me. “I would not change it … but it is a challenge.”)

You might think modern life would make it easier to be alone. The internet lets you do many jobs and accomplish many tasks from a distance, and social media can allow you some limited form of connection without actually having to endure a crowded bus or a lengthy conversation. But those same technological conveniences can also start encroaching on the feeling of true solitude. “It’s repulsive to be so in touch, and feel like you’re literally in a crowd even if you’re alone in a room,” Anneli Rufus, the author of Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, told me. (She doesn’t keep a nocturnal schedule, though she used to fantasize about doing so.) Although the online world never truly quiets, nighttime can still feel calmer—most people in your time zone are asleep, not posting or responding or expecting communication. Even if it’s not totally logical, living nocturnally can feel like an act of rebellion against the practice of being perennially in touch. Like a modern-day equivalent of “shuffling off into the woods and building a cabin,” Rufus told me, you’re making a statement, even if it’s mostly symbolic: “No one else is here.”

Many of the people I spoke with had felt trapped in contemporary life—depressed, on edge, and guilty for feeling that way in the first place. But then, each came to the realization: It doesn’t need to be this way. There’s already a time when the noise and chaos of society falls away. They just need to be awake for it.

diptych: a man sitting in front of dry cleaning; an empty laundry mat
Max Mikulecky for The Atlantic

Being awake for it, though, is not always easy. Ideal sleep hours vary from person to person, but most people naturally follow a similar circadian rhythm and wake during daylight. Messing with that internal clock can wreak havoc on your health: Circadian-rhythm disruptions are associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer. Some people I spoke with told me they sometimes have trouble falling asleep and have had to intentionally train themselves for nocturnal living: They have to be disciplined about getting good sleep in the daytime, using blackout curtains or white-noise machines and putting all their devices on silent. But it may still be hard on their bodies.

Nocturnal people have to deal with logistical obstacles, too. Finding 24-hour businesses can feel like a jackpot—multiple people described the relief of walking through an empty grocery store—but when they close down or cut hours, it’s a blow. And some places, including most doctors’ offices, are never open at night except for emergencies; that means nocturnal people typically have no choice but to go in the middle of their sleeping hours.

Some find the inconveniences and health risks to be acceptable trade-offs for a lifestyle that they say has made them immeasurably happier. “There’s a sense of timelessness,” I heard from one woman who asked not to be named, not wanting to insult people she’d spent time with before going nocturnal. “It feels like you’re in a free-floating abyss.” The night gives you freedom—from expectations, from obligations, and from distractions. It allows you to just be. “The daytime forces all these identity possibilities on you,” Rufus told me. “The nighttime, with its silence and its darkness and its solitude, helps you settle more into who you really are.”

But I didn’t know how to square these comments with the abundant research suggesting that humans are naturally social beings. The neocortex, a part of the brain that is essential for strong social skills, is much larger in humans than other primates, which many researchers believe is a natural response to our society’s social complexity. Neuroscientists have shown that our brains process social rejection and physical pain in similar ways. The researcher Matthew Lieberman has found that the neural networks involved in reading others’ emotions are active almost constantly when we’re awake. “This is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others,” he writes in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. And social isolation has profound effects on the body, down to the molecular level.

Given all of that, some psychologists I spoke with were skeptical that a highly isolated nocturnal life would be healthy in most cases. They stressed that it’s impossible to make judgments from afar, but Lee Anna Clark, a professor at Notre Dame University who studies personality pathology, gave me a general framework for how experts think about whether a behavior is maladaptive. Broadly speaking, they consider two separate factors, she told me: whether it works for the person engaging in the behavior, and whether it’s harming anyone else. Being this isolated could be adaptive for certain people—but there are plenty of ways it could go wrong.

There’s already been some controversy in the psychological community about whether intense introversion should qualify as a disorder. The American Psychiatric Association has considered adding introversion to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Pathologizing introversion sounds absurd—until you start considering the extreme end of the spectrum. Colin DeYoung, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, didn’t comment on the DSM debate—but he did explain that the clinical version of introversion is known as “detachment,” characterized partly by low sensitivity to reward. That means disconnection from social relationships, but also from “energetic or upbeat positive emotions like joy or excitement,” he told me. Clark said something similar. “There is a connection between social interaction and pleasure,” she said. “So people who live their life alone without others, they may not be unhappy. But they also may not experience the full spectrum of pleasure.” And they might not even realize it.

people seen through a diner window at night
Max Mikulecky for The Atlantic

I spoke with seven people who have kept some variation of a nocturnal schedule. Some of them occasionally saw friends or talked to people on the phone, though they said they could handle only a small amount of socializing before needing alone time again. A few were married to non-nocturnal people; Herman, for instance, sees his wife when their schedules happen to overlap, but much of his time at home is spent by himself, watching sports on TV or exercising on his stationary bike while she sleeps. (She’s introverted too, he told me, and their marriage works well because they can function well independently.)

Others were real loners, living alone and keeping largely to themselves. Alec Maltz, a 38-year-old in Los Angeles who lived nocturnally for years, told me he thought he could likely go “indefinitely” without seeing people. (He’s had to switch back to working in the day more recently, “and it’s taken its toll on me. It’s too busy in the daytime and much too bright,” he told me via email.) Some people told me they had lost touch with old friends, and didn’t regret it. One even said he’d forsaken potential romantic relationships in favor of living nocturnally. Everyone I talked with felt deeply grateful for the night’s reprieve.

It is tough for some of the daytime people in their introverts’ orbits. Young said his family has regular get-togethers, but he only attends them sometimes, and leaves early when he does. Alexandru’s husband, Willem, told me he’s had to get used to the fact that they won’t always share all parts of their life. When she goes to sleep at 8 or 9 p.m. so she can wake up at 4, “that means that we don’t go to bed together … That’s something that doesn’t feel nice,” he said. Or “you wake up and your partner’s not there.” But for the most part, they said their family members seemed to understand that their introverted loved ones had different needs, and wanted them to be happy. Willem told me that his wife has taught him to be more reflective and comfortable with silence, and he doesn’t think partners need to share every aspect of their lives.

The nocturnal people I spoke with didn’t see their disposition as optional, and self-acceptance gave them great comfort. “I can’t try to fight it anymore,” Herman told me. “I don’t try to force myself to do things I don’t want to do.” Research suggests, though, that personality traits aren’t necessarily fixed in stone. When introverts are prodded to act like extroverts—say, by pretending they’re more talkative and assertive, or interacting with strangers—they tend to report feeling positive emotions afterward. I asked some of these nocturnal people: Might you ultimately be better off if you pushed yourself to socialize more? Most of them felt skeptical that they’d be happier, and some had tried and felt exhausted by their forced interactions. But some of them said they couldn’t be sure, or admitted that, on occasion, they’ve felt it might be nice to have some company. Maltz said he was interested in having a romantic partner, someone who “wants to do their own thing alone in the same room.” Herman told me he’s sometimes enjoyed talking to co-workers.

Still, Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a researcher at the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change at Ashoka University in Haryana, India, told me that we should be careful not to infer too much from studies that push introverts to interact. They show mood boosts after people engage with others for relatively short periods of time; it’s not at all clear that introverts would be happier in the long run if they started acting extroverted forever. And some researchers theorize that people benefit from behaving in accordance with their personality traits.

In fact, Balsari-Palsule guessed that isolated nocturnal people could be high-functioning. “If they are able to get the equivalent of what we see as social interaction from other forms, whether that be using social media … or even just watching films where you feel like you’re interacting with people in a way,” she told me, “I don’t think that necessarily translates into being maladaptive.”

If they are happy, that raises some serious questions about the amount of social interaction humans inherently need, or whether humans have universal psychological needs at all. For decades, many psychologists have believed that all people share certain basic needs, with variation in degree. In Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” first described in 1943, the only needs more essential than “social” ones are those related to physical survival and security. And in more recent years, researchers have proposed updated versions; the Basic Psychological Needs Theory, for example, asserts that we have an innate need for “relatedness”—the feeling that you matter to other people.

But in trying to draw connections between people and cultures—to describe what we all share, despite our myriad differences—researchers may be papering over variation in even these most elemental traits. Some social needs are probably universal up to a certain age; babies need connection to their caregivers, to have eye contact and touch and warmth. But for adults, needs may be less definitive. “I think there are some people so unusually low in that need that for them it basically doesn’t exist,” DeYoung, the University of Minnesota psychologist, told me. “We should take seriously the possibility that there are people who really don’t need social connection.” Psychologists may be missing those people altogether: If they remain in solitude—if they’re not even awake at the same hours as the rest of us—we might not notice they’re there.

a building with an apartment lit up at night
Max Mikulecky for The Atlantic

Though the impulse to find some universal traits is well intentioned, it may also be hubristic. We can only know our own internal experience, after all, but we still want to project that experience onto others, to feel that their minds reflect our own. Of course, sometimes there are good reasons for deeming other people’s behavior “abnormal,” and asking them to change. The question is where the line is—when another person’s way of living or thinking can be invalidated, and by whom, using what measurements.

The answers people give to that question are inevitably shaped by invisible biases. In the U.S., a solitary nocturnal life might seem more mind-boggling than it would in other countries. On the one hand, it’s an individualistic culture, seemingly primed for people who want to build the life that works for them. On the other, it’s well documented that America is a particularly extrovert-centric nation. The historian Warren Susman called it a “culture of personality,” which glorifies being bold and being seen. From the time Carl Jung described the term extraversion in a popular 1921 book, it became linked in the U.S. to “self-improvement, independence and the go-getting American dream,” according to Fay Bound Alberti, a historian of emotions and the author of A Biography of Loneliness. Introversion, meanwhile, was associated with “loneliness.”

None of this means that social connection isn’t important. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure that connection means the same thing to everyone, or that there is any one way to live a fulfilling life. The past decade or so has seen a growing acceptance of different identities, including a flourishing neurodiversity movement. Traditionally, that’s been focused on neurological differences—but some have argued it should encompass variations in the mind, as well as the brain. Most people probably wouldn’t think to champion nocturnal people under the same banner, or in the same spirit. But maybe we should.

The pandemic, too, may be shifting how we think of individual psychological needs. It’s never been more clear that people can work well on very different schedules. Balsari-Palsule believes that workplaces can play a huge role in dictating whether introverts feel pressured to act extroverted. Now they could pave the way for greater acceptance of nocturnal people, and for introverts at large.

The night owls I spoke with are banking on it. When I asked them what they want from the future, many of them described a similar vision—one of even deeper isolation, further from the clamor and unrest of other people. Young, the network engineer, told me that he’s “looking to maybe become more introverted … thinking of moving into a tiny home in the middle of nowhere.”

And Herman, the machinist who has lived nocturnally for more than 30 years, dreams of a time when he can quit his night shift, his one remaining tie to society. “I can see just living in a tiny little ranch somewhere—somewhere in Montana with nobody around. There’s my dream retirement,” he told me. “Peace and quiet and dark.”

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