alone vs lonely

I was recently speaking with a recently-separated friend. She had been with her husband for more than 15 years, and the prospect of spending so much alone time was daunting. Taking care of the car, the yard and the taxes were new to her. She craved a vacation, but the thought of traveling alone scared the shit out of her.

All of that perfectly normal.

Especially in a world that promotes coupledom as the highest goal, and constant-companionship of a romantic partner / family / friends / pets / happy hour acquaintances as an inferior, but acceptable substitute.

Meanwhile, as the economy, social norms, and gender equality progress, we collectively chose more solitary lives. To wit:

Americans increasingly prefer to spend time alone

  • Marriage rates are at an all-time low. The percentage of 18-to-64-year-olds hit a record low of 48.6 percent in 2016, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. If we were all really so happy being in this elusive couple, then why are we choosing single life? And yes, people can be committed and enjoy many of the benefits of marriage without legally tying the knot, but without a formal marriage certificate, you are more likely to split than with one. In short: Because people can afford to live alone, and women now can mostly chose whether or not to marry, and can afford to live alone if we chose — that is exactly what we're doing.
  • We increasingly chose to live alone. In fact, the percent of Americans aged 18 and over living alone has risen over the last few decades, from 7.6 percent in 1967 to 14.3 percent in 2017. This is a sign of a strong economy — historically, tough financial times forced more people into cohabitation in various configurations — and changing social norms (e.g. women are no longer social pariahs if we don't live with a male protector).
  • As the economy increasingly improves overall (not just employment rates and GDP, but women's ability to be self-sufficient), Americans chose larger and larger living spaces (while home square-footage balloonage has leveled off, family size continues to decrease, so we all have more room to ourselves in our giant houses and apartments). In other words: We prefer less togetherness.

Difference between loneliness, social isolation and spending time alone

There is a difference between loneliness, social isolation and spending time alone, as this article in Popular Science does a good job of explaining. You can be surrounded constantly by people — even people whom you love, and who love you — and feel lonely. You can also spend a lot of time alone, but not be socially isolated (because you chose to spend quality time with people you have a meaningful connection with).

Lonliness and social isolation are negatives, with higher risks of death, mental and physical health, and generally lower quality of life.

A lot of quality alone time, however, is so excellent for you in many ways. This NBC News article does a very excellent job highlighting all science that finds that while people are terrified of doing things alone (preferring electric shocks to being alone with our thoughts!), we also report so many benefits from solo activities. Some highlights from related studies on time spent alone:

Research on spending time alone

  • The Rest Test, a survey of 18,000 people from 134 countries, gave people a long list of activities, and asked to rank them in terms of being most restful. “Spending time alone” came out No. 3 — behind only “reading” and “being in nature.” Other activities that made the survey's top 10 list were also solo activities: listening to music, daydreaming, taking a bath and meditating.
  • You are more likely to generate new ideas and generally be creative working alone, vs in a group.
  • Alone time can relieve stress and depression.
  • Time alone, including being disconnected from social media, improves our ability to connect with other people — and benefits our relationships.

“If cultivating a relationship with ourselves is not worthwhile, what other relationships would be?” asks Kozak. “While we are social creatures, our relationship to self is foundational to all other relationships, including that with the natural world, and a solid relationship to self is grounded in solitude — the capacity to be alone.”Arnie Kozak, PhD, a psychotherapist and clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Alone time in a relationship

This quote from Sherry Turkle — a researcher and founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and author of  Alone Together:Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, sums up my observations from working with women coming out of relationships, and often relentlessly seek out companionship:

“You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”

Examining my own life, I have experienced a huge shift in how I experience time alone. When I was in my teens and 20s, I was often lonely, and would constantly seek out company for the sake of company — including:

  • Spent time with acquaintances or colleagues who I didn't really like, because it was better than being alone
  • Hung out at coffee shops or bars solo, even when I felt bored, because it was better than being alone
  • Stayed late at the office because it felt less isolating than going home to an empty apartment
  • Dated guys I wasn't really into because I was afraid of being alone

Fast-forward to today, and I spend so much time alone as a self-employed writer who works at home, sometimes my kids get home from long weekend with their dad and my instinct is to think: What are you doing here? You're cramping my style!

I love my alone time, and I crave vast sums of it. In fact, learning to love and feed off my alone time has nurtured every facet of my life. Comfort in your solitude is the ultimate power, the ultimate freedom. How I spend my free time is dictated by choice, not fear. My relationships are nurtured out of a genuine connection, not the terror of being single or lonely — and deeper and more genuine as a result.

Today, if I spend time with you — whether you are a friend, a colleagues, a man — it is because I really enjoy your company. You are not a Band-Aid for loneliness. We connect, and I love your company.

Today, I am rarely lonely (even though that has its use. After all, how do you know you feel connected if you never feel lonely?), and it is because I listen to my need for frequent solitude.

This comfort in being alone has also opened me up to the world. I travel internationally and domestically solo (experience in Copenhagen below), and as I desire, feel very free to go on hikes (my latest obsession), dine where I desire, go to the theater and movies, and generally enjoy my life.

Including with other humans! I am fortunate in my wide circle of incredible friends, an amazing boyfriend and two cool kids with whom I share many adventures. But this post is not about my full social life. It is about solitude. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, per the above research, we all require quality alone time to grow our relationships.

Alone time and women

Doing things alone takes on a different power as it relates to women. We have collectively been taught that there are many things we should not do alone: Go to a bar or restaurant, for example (too slutty!), travel or hike (too dangerous!), negotiate the purchase of a home, car, brokerage account, insurance policy (too complicated for the ladies!), fix shit (too dirty!).

Doing these things takes some inner strength, for it calls on you to buck the patriarchy, and your related fears. But once you do it, you will never look back. In fact, you will look to for more things you can accomplish solo.

41 things every woman should do alone before she dies

This is a list I co-created with the wonderful members of our closed Facebook group Millionaire Single Moms:

  1. Travel
  2. International travel
  3. “Travel somewhere where you don’t speak the language,” says Cheryl.
  4. Roadtrip (if you ever want to roadtrip with your kids, read my 7 tips for roadtrips from my many long trips with Helena and Lucas)
  5. Hike
  6. Camp
  7. Stay solo in a hotel
  8. Go to the beach
  9. Buy a home
  10. Buy a car
  11. Negotiate a car or home
  12. Orgasm. Says Cheryl: “Learn how your body works and what makes you have awesome fulfilling orgasms!” Related: Why sex and dating is better as a single mom
  13. Go to a sex-toy shop.
  14. Open and own and fund a savings account — in your name alone.
  15. Open and fund an investment account
  16. File your taxes (or work with a tax professional). Courtney says: “I'm currently irritated in the process of learning this, and wish I had done it sooner.”
  17. Write a will / estate plan
  18. Buy life insurance
  19. Live alone in your own home. Not being alone a lot because your partner works a lot / travels extensively / is deployed. No – sign your own lease, put all bills in your own name, buy your own furniture. Lola shared: “My mom always said the one she regretted was never living alone. She went from her parents house to married life then kids. Living alone before I had kids was the best time I’ve ever had 😊.”
  20. Fix a major appliance
  21. Decorate your home, just as you like it.
  22. Enjoying a nice meal in a restaurant. Says Kelsi: “For some reason, that was a big one for me. But now I love taking myself on movie and dinner dates. I have no problem being alone now but it took some work to get there.”
  23. Go to a movie
  24. Attend the theater
  25. Go to a sporting event or a concert
  26. “Start a fire (campfire or in your fireplace),” Jennifer says.
  27. Go to a bar or club alone. “I was so intimidated but it was such an empowering feeling to be able to do it confidently!” says Jasmine.
  28. “Go dancing (salsa, swing, ballroom, whatever sounds fun to you). People go solo and it's no big deal, you get to have fun and meet great people!” — Selena
  29. Intentionally carve out an evening to stay home alone and binge Netflix / Hulu / Amazon Prime, and savor every minute.
  30. Go on a date with yourself, says Rebecca
  31. “Buy a china pattern and use it!” — Kat
  32. Work a power tool (and yes, that kind, too)
  33. Change a tire
  34. Home improvement projects
  35. Mow a lawn. Says Gina of the three above: “Not because any of these are fun but so you CAN!”
  36. Spend a major holiday solo. Says Cameron: New Year’s Eve! I spent it alone last year, and it was the most wonderful, introspective and empowering experience to be alone on NYE and totally okay with it!”
  37. Throw a dinner party. Just because! My roundup of grocery delivery and meal-planning services.
  38. Basic car repairs and maintenance. Says Danyle: “Know how to check your oil/put more in if needed, check tire pressure, and know other basic things about cars so you’re not taken advantage of — and then make a man feel like an idiot when they tell you your cars needs some ridiculous thing and you can set them straight…feels so good!”
  39. “Take out the trash cans to the street,” Cynthia says. “I use to hate doing this. But now i feel so strong doing it without a man. Such a simple thing but so powerful for me.”
  40. Spend several days alone — not visiting or speaking with anyone else.
  41. “Be wild, be powerful, be rich!” — Angelika

And, final words from Christie (who learned to ride a street motorcycle by herself):

“Identify one on this list that sounds a little scary and hard, and then chip away at it until you’ve conquered it. That is a goal anyone can achieve!”

My experience traveling alone internationally as a single mom

Posted August 3, 2015

I am in Denmark for the next three weeks, staying in an apartment I swapped for my own in New York, working, exploring, and generally hanging out.

Thursday, I drove my kids and ex to JFK, where they flew to Crete to visit family there. I don't usually miss my kids so much when we're apart — after all, part of being a divorced family is that you are apart from your kids, and everyone gets used to it. This time we were all so sad about saying goodbye. The worst was seeing little Lucas, 5, who'd all day been saying, “I'm not going to Greece. I'm going to Copenhagen with you,” standing on the curb where I'd just hugged and kissed him and his sister a zillion times, calling after me: “Bye mom!” and fighting back tears with his little, tight, downturned mouth that was trying so hard not to cry.

The following afternoon I found myself on a plane, catching up on all the great TV that I never watch (Veep, Silicon Valley) and chatted for a few hours with the young Danish woman sitting next to me. She was returning from a visit with her boyfriend who is studying in Los Angeles, so of course we talked about dating and men most of the time. She is 32, uncertain about her relationship, but wanting a family. “Do you ever regret having children now that you're divorced?” she asked.

“Oh my god no!” I said. “You cannot imagine how much you will love your kids. It will blow your mind!” I reached over and grabbed her hand. I got serious. “If you want babies, have babies.”

Telling this stranger about my children, and my plans to spend the better part of a month alone in a place where I don't have any friends felt sad. When I was in my 20s I traveled all over the world by myself. It was lonely sometimes, but mostly a great, fun adventure. Things felt different now. Now I have a full life. Then, there was a hostel or Irish pub in every city where other young travelers like myself met. Now, I don't know where to go. Now, I miss my kids, an I am particular about how my coffee ought to be in the morning. Now, I feel the urgent tug of work, owing to my uncharacteristically empty days. Now, I am a middle-aged mom. Where does a middle-aged mom find some delicious trouble?

I admit that I hadn't done much research about my destination, or made many plans — sightseeing or otherwise — aside from some big work projects I plan to tackle. When we landed at 6:30 a.m. local time, I felt a little nervous about navigating this foreign country without a word of its language. Even if the Danes speak very good English, I find it rude not to make an earnest effort to speak the local language, and I hadn't learned a word. Not to mention that not knowing the country's tongue puts you at a great risk for making an ass of yourself. So when, following my host's public transit instructions, and I missed the bus stop, I ate my slice of humble pie and asked the driver to set me straight, and after crossing the street and catching my next lift, arrived at the big, old apartment complex in Vesterbro, an artist-turned-yuppie neighborhood, not unlike New York's Williamsburg.

Per my host's instructions, I buzzed the neighbor, a filmmaker of about 50, who was very sweet as she showed me around the light- and art-filled apartment with a small and highly designed kitchen outfitted with excellent pots and spices. My host had left me Danish bread — a dark and heavy, of sprouted grain — blueberries, local yogurt and beer, along with a hand-written welcome note. My new neighbor showed me to what would be my bike, the laundry, and an outdoor common yard outfitted with a sandbox, grills and elaborate recycling system.

We then took off on our bikes to the local supermarket, which was not too unlike an American store, except this one had an “American” display, with Mississippi Belle (wtf?) brand peanut butter, Jiffy marshmallow fluff, McDonald's brand catsup and mustard (wtf squared!) and Charleston Chews. We laughed and took pictures.

I'd made so many purchases (so American?) they barely fit in the wooden crate affixed to my handlebars, but we made our way home on the bike lanes — separated by an actual curb — that run parallel to most of the city's roads. My neighbor friend was fun and sweet, laughing along with me as I nearly tipped over on my over-loaded bike. That combined with the graciousness of my host, who I liked so much even if I will likely never meet her, but will live an intimate, intertwined co-existence with her, cooking in her kitchen, and sleeping in her sheets, gave me a sense of generosity of the universe. That reminder that there is no need to feel lonely or alone because there are always kind and sweet people who will give you a little or a lot of love whenever you have the sense to open up your doors to take it in.

Back in my new home, I unpacked, took a long and hot shower and slept for a few hours before making myself a cheese-and-Danish-bread sandwich and tomato-cucumber-and-blueberry salad and hit the town on two wheels.

I will say here that exploring Copenhagen via bike was the single thing that I was most excited about this journey. Bicycle riding is my No. 1 favorite form of transportation, as well as my No. 1 form of exercise. For three hours I explored the main roads, and the cobbled side streets and the post-card favorite Nyhaven, where old, colorful homes (now mostly touristy restaurants and gift shops) line the canal. I cruised along the inlets and around the harbor and circled through the parks.

Along the way I'd passed a cool theater, the Grand, and noticed the Amy Winehouse biopic was playing, so after my American thighs started to feel the burn, I headed back to the movie house, bought a small, brown sack of cherries from a street vendor and purchased what turned out to be an assigned movie seat. Sure, the movie was sad, but mostly it made me happy. Because she was such a very real, pure and original talent. And she owned that talent, shared her art with us, and we still have it. Just because her life was shorter than average doesn't mean it was shorter than it should have been. By the time I left, it was close to 9 p.m., and I found my bike and headed the 2 miles back to my apartment, chilly in the evening, as this Nordic city is cooler than any clothes I packed for.

Copenhagen is small — fewer than 600,000 people — and spread out, with neighborhoods separated by ponds and parks. Even though it was Saturday night, none of the streets were crowded, and in many ways it feels like a large town, rather than a capitol city.

In my apartment, I found a wok and a cast iron skillet and cooked myself some local fish, oily and tasty, and sautéed the bok choy, and drank the large Pilsner from the bottle while sitting at the long dining table in the large living room, feeling quite content and tired.

I slept long and hard, and woke up to look from the bedroom door to the large living room windows streaming northern light onto the  worn pine floors and Danish chair. It was all plain and gorgeous, and taking it in made me swell with gratitude.

I put on my robe and made myself two large cups of espresso with hot milk and lots of sugar, one after the other, using two of the many coffee-making methods available to me in this one-person home (a capsule Nespresso machine, and then a stovetop espresso maker, which fits on the gas burners with a special wire rack), and wrapped up a client project I'd been procrastinating on.

I then put on my running clothes and jogged through the campus of Carlsberg brewery and its famous elephant gate towards Søndermarken-Frederiksberg Park, when I happened upon a flea market that looks like any flea market you would find in New York City, except the prices are what flea market prices ought to be, and not 80 percent of the original retail price.

Now, I was still in my black capris leggings and sports tank top, neon Brooks sneakers, good and sweaty. In the United States, wearing your Lululemon getup to run errands in the middle of a week day is a status symbol — one that suggests, “I am coming from/going to pilates in the middle of the day because I don't work thanks to my ability to snag a rich husband.”

But this isn't the United States. This is Europe, where women get themselves together before they leave the house and interact with other humans, including flea market vendors. So when I spotted a smart light-weight, bat-winged jacket in my favorite shade of dusty blue, priced at $8US, I had to jump on it, even if I was the sweaty American who spoke no Danish. These Danes, they are cool customers. The two blonde young women happily folded up my purchase and sent me on my way with polite nods.

I wandered to the next vendor and decided on a pretty black silk oversized blouse and mauve and orange silk batik shirt-dress, and the pretty middle-aged vendor quoted me 110 crowns, and — being the American that I am — I offered 100. She smiled in a way that only European women can. In the way that says, “In your country I am old and irrelevant. But I have perfect cheek bones and wear hardly any makeup on my smooth, smooth skin, and even if there are lines around my eyes and my lips are thinning, I dress wonderfully and am naturally elegant and just so very really beautiful because I'm European.” I paid 110 crowns, smiled in thanks, and walked home.

There I cooked myself some very good pasta and cheese sauce with some brie I'd bought the day before, and regretted not buying any wine, even if it wouldn't have fit in my bike basket. I sat down and started writing this post, but then started to feel very isolated and like I am wasting my time by not meeting locals, so I reached out to some friends-of-friends contacts and set up a drink meeting with one, and then researched local leading women in tech, one of whom responded immediately to my Tweet, and she is meeting me for lunch this week.

Because there is no need to feel lonely or alone. Indeed, there are always kind and sweet people who will give you a little or a lot of love whenever you have the sense to open up your doors to take it in.

Another experience with a solo vacation as a single mom

As I've mentioned, my kids are in Europe with their dad for more than two weeks. Everyone kept asking what special things I was going to do with all my free time. I had a long list of friends I hoped to see, work and home projects that had gone unattended to, and for the most part I can say I didn't make a dent in any of that.

But I did fixate on getting away for a few days. Recently I've fantasized about a writer's weekend. I envisioned myself in a cabin in the woods where I could escape city noise and filth and lavish in the gruesome loneliness that creative people know fuels great art.

But then that fantasy started to feel like garden-variety loneliness. After all, I spend much of my life writing, alone, and feeling lonely. Doing the same in a prettier location is no vacation!

Enter my recent lover. We started planning a weekend at an inn upstate New York. At the last minute he sprung a fever and took to hibernation, and I considered canceling the getaway all together. But I just could not squander the precious kid-free time away. So at 4 p.m. Friday I booked an AirBnB property – a funky cabin in the woods upstate New York – tossed my hiking boots, swim suit and a going-out dress (you never know) in my overnight bag. Grabbed some croissants at my corner bakery and fruit at the weird Pakistani bodega that sells more or less nothing you would ever need but has fantastic melons and avocados — and I was outta there. 

Less than two hours later I pulled up to the cabin, secluded from the road and just big enough for one or two people — and it was all mine for the weekend. I was greeted by my friendly host who invited me to join him for dinner — pasta made with swiss chard pesto from his garden. As we drank cold beer and chatted about work (he's an exhibit designer), and romance (he just wrapped up a two-year affair with a local college boy whose name he does not know) I was brought back to my own many solo travel adventures in my teens and early 20s — the way people and experiences magically unfold when you are on the road.

The next morning I woke up in the windowed sleeping loft surrounded by the vision and smell of green. Took my time enjoying black coffee and figs on a chaise lounge the stone patio (close your eyes and imagine me as Cleopatra – I did) when a flock of eight or nine wild turkeys emerged from the property's many raspberry bushes.

I then jumped in the car and headed to a forest preserve a few miles away. Thrilling in an outing unencumbered by kids and the many accruements they require, I all but leapt out of the car with nothing more than my keys, a tampon and a $20 in my pocket.

The preserve was perfect and empty of any other people. Golden late summer sun shone through the giant trees. A quiet lake where I sat and sat — silver fish intermittently leaping out, here, there (did they sense me?). It felt so good to move my body, climb up mossy hills and over logs, fill my lungs with clean air. It was delightful to be totally, completely alone.

“I'm completely alone,” I thought. “Wait, I'm completely alone.” An edge set in. I wasn't sticking to the marked trails. I had no food or water. I'd left the map in the car. Bears can smell your period, right? I started to think about The Blair Witch Project.

Needless to say I found my way back – and in a way, back into my old self.

This weekend — like those years ago, backpacking around South America and Europe, jetting off for last-minute weekends to see friends — the experience was just being. Just being in the quiet. Just falling asleep looking at the stars through the skylight. Just napping without guilt or a wakeup time. Just sitting in the cool mountain sun and being so grateful that there is time and place and money to luxuriate in the opportunity to recalibrate.

I thought about how in the past bunch of months I have felt a disconnect from my kids. There are parenting tasks I do not enjoy — I do not enjoy playing make believe (hello — I'm a journalist. Real life is really interesting, kids!). I do not enjoy hanging out at the playground or engaging in a game of tag. No. But I do enjoy travel. And exploring, and meeting people and talking and learning about the world. And that is what I plan to do more of with my family — without guilt for my disinterest in the other stuff.

And so, in my ongoing gratitude exercise I am grateful for this time away. Time away all by myself. Because being alone doesn't always have to feel lonely. In fact, it can give you perspective you need to connect with people in your life in new ways.

How to travel alone for the first time

Yearning to travel alone — but scared / nervous / unsure of where to start?

Here are 8 things to do to get out the door, onto a plane / bus / road and have the time of your life:

  1. Pick a destination. Really, you can travel to 99% of the world safely, alone. There are a few disease and conflict-afflicted outliers, which the U.S. State Department's advisory site.
  2. Get there. If you're flying, start with the airline ticket. Get yourself a good deal, and prioritize direct flights at convenient hours. For example, avoid arriving in the middle of the night, or long exhausting layovers if you are timid about this first trip.
  3. Find on-the-ground advice and contacts. Whenever I plan a trip — domestically or abroad — I always reach out to my network, and post on social media, asking for recommendations and introductions to locals who would like to be my friends. This is 100% the best way to a) get good advice on where to stay/visit, tips and tricks, and if you are friendly and grateful, you will get invitations to people's homes, foot tours, and other welcoming gestures. This is the best type of travel in the world, and I recommend never being shy. People love to show off their country and culture, so pack some small gifts and take them up on it!
  4. While I love the fun and flexibility of booking accommodation on the fly — which is so easy most of the world, thanks to phone apps and accessible wifi — for a first-time solo traveler I recommend booking all or most of your accommodation in advance. Give yourself some semblance of a schedule (if you are staying at more than one place), and lets you research the neighborhood, restaurants, and other things to do.
  5. If you're traveling internationally, U.S. citizens should sign up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which sends you local updates from the State Department about any unlikely unrest or other dangers, and helps the local embassy communicate with you during your stay.
  6. You will meet new friends, so hang out with them! If you are the least bit open, you will meet other travelers who are also happy to meet you. Don't be shy about asking these fellow travelers to join you for a meal, hike, or tour.
  7. Be flexible. Be open to straying from your itinerary when you hear of a great winery tour that you had not planned on seeing, or a fantastic waterfall hike that was not in your guidebook. If you are too exhausted to see the museum as you'd planned, lounge by the pool with your book.
  8. Do things alone. Yes, you can and will meet new and old friends, perhaps a lover, join tours. But the point is to enjoy your alone time, too.

About Emma Johnson founder  Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.


  1. Natalie on February 26, 2019 at 9:47 am

    Done everything on the list but buy a home and a car, geez!

Leave a Comment