Doing things All By Myself (and I love it!)

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

Have you ever had a burning desire to do something, be it watching a film or trying out this new restaurant, but already known that your friends wouldn’t be up for the gig? Well, you are not alone because I’ve experienced this countless times ever since I moved to Amsterdam. I have found myself increasingly enjoying doing things alone, especially those activities that are conventionally considered social, and to be frank, I have no shame about it. So, why should you consider solo-ing sometimes, even if that idea has never crossed your mind? 

My Little World

I’m an avid film viewer, and even though watching movies in Amsterdam can be painstakingly expensive, I still frequent the cinema. Yet, it’s not that easy to find friends who share similar tastes, which can cause some inconvenience whenever I bring forward the idea. Also, as an INFJ (yes, I’m also into MBTI), I can be acutely sensitive to others’ opinions. For instance, whenever I see a movie with a friend, I always find myself liking it less if they do not give a favorable personal review. Since I can be extremely volatile to different opinions, I need to have first-hand experiences to formulate an informed and personal stance. Thus, doing things alone alleviates that stress and burden from me. 

Furthermore, I can be overly receptive to others’ attitudes and constantly try and gauge someone’s reactions when experiencing something together. However, this habit has made me unnecessarily tired. While I understand that it’s unrealistic for other people to always share similar opinions, it can be a major mood-kill and turn-off when I’m stoked about something, and my company offers nothing but lukewarm remarks. Moreover, having company can distract you from genuinely immersing in the experience, and for someone who regularly attends to others’ enjoyment, this means that I can sometimes disregard and neglect my own. 

Is it weird?

Living out the single life is not that foreign of an idea, but doing social activities alone has felt quite unordinary, at least in the Netherlands. No one goes to the cinema alone here, no one dines alone here, and no one goes sightseeing alone here. Yet, I have taken on these conventionally social events singlehandedly more often than one could imagine, accentuating my introvertedness even more. I’ve been in theaters where I’m the only single-household viewer there. The rest of the audience is exclusively made of families with young children, couples, friends, and maybe that one uncle who can resonate with my experience.

But I recently found out an intriguing fact: Many people fear joining these so-called “social” activities on their own and being viewed as “outcasts” or “loners.” Hannah Jane Parkinson, a Guardian columnist, encapsulates the vision of myself as an adult: “When I was a kid, if I spotted someone alone at the cinema, I would assume they were a sad sack. I am ashamed to admit this, but I would peg them as a loser; or I would feel sorry for them because I assumed they had no friends.” And while it’s true that I don’t have an infinite number of friends I can randomly pick and choose, I don’t necessarily have a problem with flying solo. But apparently, society does. Many individuals perceive undertaking supposedly “social” occasions alone as being abnormal, demonstrated by the experimental research conducted by Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton of the University of Maryland and Georgetown business schools. So why are we so afraid to branch out on our own? What’s holding us back?

It turns out that we feel more at ease participating in “utilitarian” activities (involving productivity) alone than “hedonic” ones, which concerns having fun and enjoyment that is often associated with people. Additionally, the study also found that fear of social judgment and pressure inhibits one’s engagement in hedonic activities alone, where “[c]onsumers worry that […] observers will infer that they could not find friends to accompany them.” I have been through this dilemma as well, especially when I’m almost always surrounded by non-singles, be it a restaurant, a theater, or a tourist attraction.  Although no one has really given the stink eye for cackling in the cinema alone (that’d actually be rude) and I do have friends, the experience might be nerve-wracking for social butterflies who are more often seen with other people. The researchers underlined this fear: “what’s uncomfortable is the idea of other people seeing and judging.” 

But the (ugly) truth is, people are not so concerned with us, oftentimes minding their own business. In other words, they don’t pay attention to us at all, as supported by the research by Thomas Gilovich and others. This misconception is demonstrated by the “Spotlight Effect,” where we tend to think others notice what we are doing when in reality, they are often too busy to even bat an eye. I have had so many solo dining instances where I was happily chomping on food, then caught the slightest feeling of someone staring at me. I became extremely self-conscious to the point that I had to suddenly eat gracefully when in reality, I probably didn’t even exist in their eyes. As a society, we’re so obsessed with the idea of being anti-lonely that we often forget how to embrace its beauty. And thus, those that avoid doing social things alone are “missing out on opportunities for rewarding experiences” as they are preoccupied with the idea that going solo won’t reap the same enjoyment. While many people might wonder “What’s the point?” If these activities are not joined by others, well, the point is, you CAN still have as much fun (sometimes even more) going solo once in a while. 

The perks of spending some alone time

As antagonistic and cynical as this whole piece may have sounded, there are some actual advantages to going alone. First and foremost, freedom and flexibility. Have you ever been in a situation where it’s virtually impossible to work around each other’s schedules? As everyone leads a different life, it can be extremely frustrating, disheartening, and vexing, especially if you look forward to the event. Therefore, going alone allows you to do whatever, whenever and wherever you want, without the extra worry of strenuous planning. Hakuna Matata all the way!

I don’t have to prove anything or seek validation or confirmation from anyone – I can fully savor the joy of solitude. 

Moreover, as previously mentioned, doing things alone provides me with clarity and freedom from other opinions, where I get to formulate my thoughts before being exposed to different viewpoints. Parkison notes that it’s a pleasure to “assess it in one’s own head, in solitude – turning it over in the mind, forming an opinion untainted by conversation.” It is honestly an exhilarating and refreshing experience, where I can have all sorts of reactions – whether I hate or love something, it is what it is, and no one can change my mind. And although I’m alone, I’m not really alone: I’m “an island of solitude” that is always surrounded by strangers who share similar interests at that particular moment. I don’t have to prove anything or seek validation or confirmation from anyone – I can fully savor the joy of solitude. 

Time to Rethink

It seems like the world is slowly opening up to the notion of enjoying social activities on one’s own terms. According to a survey done by Showcase Cinemas UK in 2019, solo visits had been on the rise, with 24% of respondents revealing that they see movies on their own up to three times per year, and 36% expressing their preference for the solo cinema experience over having company. And while I’m not a part of this statistic, I can (proudly) testify that I’ve seen 4 out of 9 movies alone ever since I landed in Amsterdam in 2019. Dr. Joseph Devlin, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, explains how “[c]ultural experiences like going to the cinema provide opportunities for our brain to devote our undivided attention for sustained periods of time.” And since I want to temporarily disconnect from the world, introducing social interactions in the equation can backfire for an introvert like myself. 

This phenomenon can be extended to traveling alone. As explained by Psychology Today, “the solo traveler is self-contained, untethered from obligations and expectations,” without anyone “hurrying [us] along or holding [us] back.” While this is not something to brag about, but I have traveled to multiple locations in the Netherlands by myself, much to the bewilderment of my family members. However, eating alone has not been in the same positive light. According to research, eating alone runs the risk of mental and physical health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, especially among single men. Other studies also show that dining alone may be “lonely, socially isolated and more likely to choose unhealthier foods, eat fewer fruits and vegetables and eat at irregular times.” Yet, there is a distinction to be made clear: choosing to eat alone is entirely different from having no one to share your meal with, and some solitude during your meal can be greatly appreciated and enjoyed. As a foodie, I certainly do and fingers crossed, I don’t exhibit any of the side effects that research suggests! 

While I find the solo experience unexpectedly rewarding, this article is not meant in any way to prime and push you towards entirely cutting off your friends and refrain you from enjoying these activities with them. All I’m saying is that you should give it a shot, even if this is something out of your comfort zone, and you might be pleasantly surprised. Some me-time and personal space where you can freely exist in your bubble can never hurt.

P.S.: I hope I’ll still be able to hang out with my beloved friends after this article is published 🙂 

Cover: Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

Edited by: Polina Osipchuk

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