This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
Recently, I started a weekly ritual. I walk from my office to the movie theater, where I slip into a back row and slouch down in the darkness. Afterward, I walk the hour and a half home, mulling over the film and daydreaming on my way across the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t need to formulate a coherent take—or tell anyone my thoughts at all. It’s just me and the occasional passerby and the skyline melting into the water. The night is a perfect bite of quasi-solitude: I get the quiet of my own mind but also the sputter of cars, the swell of the movie soundtrack, the energy of strangers. I’m part of the world, and I’m alone.
I like to think of this as a self-date: an appointment just for me, to honor my aloneness. For a long time, it never occurred to me to spend time alone in public or to seek solitude intentionally at all. I took pockets where I could get them—a half hour reading before bed, a flop on the couch between plans. But when the pandemic hit and society shut down, solitude became loaded. At first, living in a house with six roommates, I didn’t have enough. Then, moving back to my suburban childhood home, I had too much. Many people were in one of these two camps; in both, they had very little control over their time to themselves.
A self-date is about reclaiming that control. The choice is yours: What would you do with your time if no one else got to call the shots? For how long would you do it, and when? The pandemic continues, but in the U.S., we’ve largely left social distancing behind; now people are renegotiating their relationship to solitude. They have to reclaim it—to experiment with it, to tailor it, and ultimately to own it. The best way to do that, if you ask me? Take yourself on a date.
Americans have long harbored complicated feelings about solitude. Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that privacy was frequently viewed with suspicion throughout much of history—in part because it was associated with the “solitary sin” of masturbation. But Netta Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of Reading in England, told me that people in some historical accounts described solitude positively when it happened in public—when they could be around others without directly interacting.
Today, we still tend to stigmatize seclusion, but now we’re also weird about public solitude. Research has found that people tend to assume they’ll appear lonely if they’re seen doing a pleasurable activity such as dining out—as opposed to a practical one such as running errands—alone, and their interest in the activity decreases as a result. Valerie Manusov, a communications professor at the University of Washington, said that some of her students pretend to be on the phone when they’re walking by themselves; they’re afraid, they’ve told her, of looking like they don’t have friends.
One person who knows this fear well is Julia Cameron, the author of the self-help book The Artist’s Way. That popular creativity guide rests on two pillars: “morning pages” (a daily writing exercise) and the “artist date”—a weekly self-date. For years, Cameron has found that people actually seem eager to do the labor of the morning pages; it’s the artist date that people struggle with. Part of the issue, she believes, is that puritanical Americans simply understand work better than play. But there’s also a particular discomfort with solitary play. Many of us tend to reserve our fun activities for socializing—as if the purpose is to entertain others, not ourselves. Alone, we may not always feel worthy of planning something nice and hide ourselves away instead.
That might be changing, however slowly. Solo dining rose during the beginning of the pandemic, and 2022 is a boom time for solo travel. Kimberly Pong, a travel coach, told me she’s seen this trend firsthand. “I think people are realizing that they don’t need to wait on someone else to travel,” she told me. “And that it’s okay to do it by themselves.” Cameron told me she gets the sense that people are becoming more comfortable with solitude—and she thinks the pandemic pushed them to get used to it.
Even when restrictions began to lift, people didn’t necessarily jump back into socializing; as of 2021, Americans were spending more time alone than they had before the pandemic. That trend has sparked concerns about loneliness, fairly enough. But several researchers I spoke with told me that the question of whether solitude is healthy isn’t just one of quantity; it actually has a lot to do with quality. Alone time is better and less distressing when you think of it as an opportunity. Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, told me that in times of crisis and recovery, reflection is especially valuable. Solitude, he believes, presents an excellent chance for people to get to know themselves.
There are better and worse ways to go about that. Research has shown that “self-talk,” or the internal conversation you have with yourself in your head, can help facilitate introspection and regulate stress, as long as you don’t slip into obsessive rumination. Ethan Kross, a psychologist and the author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, has found that a shift in perspective—thinking of yourself in the second or third person, rather than the first—can keep people from spiraling into self-defeating thoughts. We tend to be harsher to ourselves than to others; thinking of yourself as another person, it turns out, can give you that compassionate distance. You could conceive of self-dates as a logical extension of self-talk: Rather than just speaking with yourself, why not take yourself out? Woo yourself, for God’s sake!
On a self-date, an activity can also give you distance from your roiling anxieties. So can being around other people, even if you don’t speak with them. Leo Coleman, an anthropologist who has written on “being alone together,” gave me museums as an example: “You can have an encounter with something that’s meaningful and beautiful. And you know that there are other people sharing that experience, even if it’s just a glance or overhearing a conversation that someone else is having with somebody there.”
The beauty of this type of interaction is perhaps especially clear after pandemic lockdown. Most of us still need some degree of solitude, but we’ve learned that isolation is a different beast. Lindsay Dodgson, a reporter for Insider, told me that while she was isolating at home, she started to feel suffocated in her small apartment. Recently, she has enjoyed taking time for herself in a kickboxing class; she doesn’t feel any pressure to converse with the other attendees, but she can “be present around other human beings.” Pong said that if her clients want to travel solo but worry about too much total aloneness, she suggests walking tours: They don’t need to interact with the other walkers, but they’re still in it together.
This is something Julia Cameron has long understood: Solitude isn’t really antithetical to connection. In fact, she told me, people tend to say that their artist date makes them feel more connected—not just to themselves, but to the world. It fosters a sense of wonder, of being part of something bigger.
But you don’t need to be out in public, necessarily, to awaken your sense of solitary delight. The real point of the self-date is that you’re driving the interaction—as Weinstein put it, “crafting your solitude.” Most people, she noted, will inevitably end up with some time alone—so you might as well learn how you prefer it. When she and her colleagues interviewed people about their solitary time, they heard loving descriptions of subjects’ solo routines. One person talked about a breakfast ritual: setting an elaborate spread just for himself, relishing the taste of each bite. When Weinstein was a working mother with young kids, she says, her 10-minute shower genuinely felt like a self-date.
So if you’re interested, know that a self-date can be whatever you want it to be. You can be quiet or loud, inside or outside, dreamy or active. You can sit on a park bench and people-watch, have a spa day and paint each toe a different color, take the train to an unfamiliar part of town, turn up your living-room speaker and throw yourself a dance party. Whatever it is, the important thing is that you savor it. After all, it’s the only time that’s just for you.