The power of alone time

By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts

Newsflash: We live in busy, over-stimulating, reactive times. This can lead to us feeling stressed, scattered-brained, unimaginative, or disconnected from ourselves. Depending on our inputs (who we’re spending all our time with and what we’re doing with our time — ahem, that includes scrolling on social media), we might even find ourselves internalizing values and habits that we’re not fully aligned with. Intentional alone time might just be the antidote we’ve been looking for. Studies suggest that when we spend intentional time alone — journaling, reading, walking in nature, daydreaming — we actually boost our creativity and learn to better regulate our emotions. So, it’s essential that we make time to be alone in order to recalibrate, get to know ourselves better, and recharge our batteries.

So what is alone time exactly? How is it different from loneliness? Why is alone time beneficial? And how can you incorporate more intentional alone time into your romantic relationship and busy life?

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In this article

What is alone time?

Ah, ‘alone time’ — those precious moments of your day where you don’t have your boss breathing down your neck or your roommate asking you “what’s for dinner?” It’s just you and your car and your favorite podcast, or maybe it’s just you and your sudsy bathtub and a few flickering candles. Merriam Webster defines ‘alone time’ as time spent apart from others. A pretty straightforward definition for a culturally fraught subject. The debate here is whether or not there is a difference between ‘alone time’ and loneliness — turns out there is. In an article for The New York Times, assistant professor of psychology at Middlebury College, Virginia Thomas confirms that ‘alone time’ is different from loneliness. She claims that loneliness means that we aren’t connected to others as much as we would prefer, which can sometimes lead to emotional distress. On the other hand, intentionally spending time alone (alone time) is “almost always” a positive experience.

Woman smiling

Humans are social creatures. In fact, it’s been stipulated that we survived and prospered as a species due to our ability to form and maintain strong social connections. Since the dawn of the internet and its widespread use and the very recent COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed us all even further online and away from one another, there has been growing concern about an increase in loneliness. In fact, the US Surgeon General declared a loneliness epidemic in May 2023. And the science suggests the uproar is warranted. One study shows that loneliness can lead to an increase in anxiety, depression, obesity, high blood pressure and even early death. Other surprising symptoms of loneliness include feeling physically colder, experiencing insomnia from prolonged and heightened states of stress, and a decrease in dopamine levels due to a lack of social interaction.

But alone time is not the same thing as loneliness. Unlike loneliness, alone time is intentional time spent with ourselves doing things we love or simply daydreaming. In fact, some people are eager to find time for themselves. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 85% of US adults believe that it is important to find time to be completely alone. But of course, we aren’t all exactly the same. We have our individual situations, personalities, needs, and desires. So, alone time tends to look different for different personality types.

What are the benefits of alone time?

No surprise that there are several benefits to finding time to be alone on your couch curled up with a book, or sipping an iced beverage on a solo walk in your neighborhood. One study found that thinking about alone time and then spending time alone actually boosted the mood of participants. And the same study also uncovered that alone time has the potential of helping us regulate our emotions. Another study found that highly creative people actually seek out alone time to help get the creative juices flowing.

For introverts, this solitude often comes up in activities like reading, writing, or creating art, where a quiet environment encourages deep thinking and new ideas. In these moments, introverts can connect with their inner selves, discovering insights that might otherwise remain hidden. Extroverts also find that alone time can spark creativity, giving them a chance to experiment and come up with ideas without immediate external input. This time is crucial, allowing them to refine and workshop their thoughts before sharing and expanding on them with others.

Creativity is one way that alone time lets us experience the world with curiosity — bringing a sense of fulfillment and purpose, while driving both personal and collective growth.

So, how do we know if we need more alone time in the first place?

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6 signs you need some alone time

  1. You’ve got a short fuse. Irritation and underlying anger or discontent could be signs that you're in need of some ‘me time’ to calm your nervous system.
  2. You’re no longer having fun. Maybe you're bored or need a change of scenery. Whatever it might be, some time spent alone in a new environment could do you some good.
  3. You’re tired. You can’t seem to concentrate on anything. Maybe you’re a busy parent and need to put yourself in ‘time out.’
  4. Hanging out with others (or even the thought of it) makes you anxious. There’s no better time to take a step back from social interactions to recharge your batteries.
  5. Your stress level is high. If you can’t seem to lower your cortisol levels, it’s time for a personal day to reset.
  6. You're always in a hurry. This goes out to those always on the GO, GO, GO: this is your permission slip to take a breather and indulge in some alone time.

Making time for alone time

Despite the many therapeutic benefits of alone time, there are some stigmas that are unavoidable in our busy capitalist society. One is the fear of loneliness which we covered earlier, lucky for us it has been determined that alone time is not the same thing as being lonely. We’re also taught to praise the 40-hour (let’s be real, 80-hour) work week and keep our schedules jam-packed with ‘to dos’. On top of that, we want to be accommodating to our coworkers, family, and friends, so it’s not a surprise that alone time gets pushed way down to the bottom of our list of priorities. But if we’re clear, flexible, and specific about our need for alone time and are willing to return the favor, we can gain the important space we need to recalibrate our nervous systems and avoid overstimulation, stress, and the dreaded B-word: burnout.

"Alone time is not the same thing as loneliness."

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How to spend time alone

There are several things you can do to ensure you spend your time alone wisely.

  • Make room in your schedule for alone time, just like you would for a dinner date with a friend.
  • Silence your notifications or make an active effort to stay off social media or other social online platforms.
  • Plan your solo date. Maybe you visit a quiet museum; or spend a day alone under a tree in a park; or try your hand at watercolors; or lounge on your couch while listening to an audiobook — whatever you choose, be intentional and leave room for daydreaming.
  • Take a walk around the block. Spending time outdoors has been found to have huge benefits to our well-being.

And if you get caught up in an overwhelming fear of being alone, consider reframing the idea of ‘alone time’ as not just solitude, but a tool in your growing toolbox to regulate your emotions and improve your overall well-being.

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Personality types and alone time

Introverts and extroverts: an overview

You may be familiar with the terms introvert and extrovert. Maybe you’ve even diagnosed yourself as one or the other, or a mixture of both. But in case you’re not familiar, here’s a quick refresh: Introverts and extroverts have distinct ways of interacting with the world around them. Introverts often find energy and fulfillment in solitary activities or small, intimate gatherings, where they can engage deeply and thoughtfully. They may prefer quieter environments that allow for reflection and focus. In contrast, extroverts are energized by social interactions and larger group settings, where they thrive on the stimulation and variety that come from engaging with many people. Both introverts and extroverts value social interaction, but they approach it differently, each bringing unique strengths and perspectives to their relationships and activities.

How introverts and extroverts respond to dopamine

The differences between introverts and extroverts extend to their neurobiology, particularly in how they respond to dopamine. Introverts tend to be more sensitive to dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure, meaning they may feel overstimulated by high levels of dopamine activity. This sensitivity means that introverts often require less variety and stimulation to feel satisfied. Conversely, extroverts have a higher tolerance for dopamine, seeking out more stimulating environments and activities to achieve the same sense of reward. This difference can also explain the phenomenon known as the "introvert hangover," where introverts feel drained and exhausted after prolonged social interactions. This happens when their dopamine system becomes overwhelmed, necessitating time to recalibrate their dopamine sensitivity with some sweet, sweet alone time.

Alone time for introverts and extroverts

So, when it comes to alone time, introverts and extroverts have differing opinions. Extroverts find alone time challenging because of the lack of external stimulation from others and their inability to just sit with their own thoughts and feelings. One (shocking) study found that many people were unable to sit alone with their thoughts and actually preferred to give themselves painful electric shocks instead of experiencing the alone time. Extroverts might find it helpful to schedule their alone time around hobbies or tasks that they’re passionate about, like reading or exercising. Incorporating mindfulness practices, like meditation or journaling, can also be beneficial in helping extroverts become more comfortable with their own thoughts and feelings. Additionally, creating a balanced routine that allows for both social interaction and personal time can help extroverts fulfill their need for external stimulation while still enjoying the benefits of solitude. Meanwhile, introverts actually gain energy from being alone and find alone time to be a non-negotiable part of their daily lives.

Experts agree that alone time is essential for processing our thoughts and feelings and recalibrating from overstimulation caused by our busy lives. In her 2012 TED Talk, Susan Cain, creator of the Quiet Revolution said, “If you want to find out how you really feel about something, you have to seclude yourself to some degree.” Cain encourages extroverts to integrate more alone time in their lives to achieve a mental balance. And Dr. Marti Olsen Laney agrees that extroverts can take a page out of the introvert playbook: “Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. This is what a less stimulating environment provides for introverts. It restores energy. It is their natural niche.” So, even though it may be more challenging for extroverts to indulge in alone time, it’s biologically imperative to recharge those batteries.

Alone time and relationships

So, you’ve determined what alone time is, why it’s important for your well-being, and even planned a solo date for next week, but have you talked to your partner about your need for more intentional alone time? According to a 2023 article in Harper's Bazaar, there are several reasons to consider incorporating some ‘me time’ while in a relationship, some of these essentials include:

  • alone time focuses on your individuality;
  • it allows you to pursue things you like outside the coupledom;
  • it improves your conversations; and
  • gives you the space you need to foster original thoughts.

So, have these essentials in your back pocket when you approach your partner about wanting to have some alone time. There’s nothing wrong with wanting time to yourself when you are in a relationship. In fact, it’s healthy to have your own life and preserve your own identity to avoid codependency.

Interested in going deeper? Try Headspace’s mental health coaching

Looking to make the most out of your alone time? Headspace's mental health coaching can be a fantastic tool to support you with just that. With tailored support, mental health coaches can empower you to discover what you really need and want when it comes to solo time, and find ways to incorporate mindfulness, creativity and relaxation into your daily life. From setting boundaries to creating a calming space, coaches can offer tips and tricks to help you enjoy your alone time to the fullest. By teaming up with a mental health coach, you can really learn to embrace and make the most of your solo moments, leading to personal growth, less stress, and an all-around happier you.

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