The Art of Living Alone

Though I don’t know that many people realize it, living alone is an art.

People need attention and affection in order to thrive, so thriving while living alone and single is asking a lot, at least for anyone who’d prefer a partnered existence. But if you can’t thrive, at least survive in style.

My take on living alone is uniquely my own, as a crafter, reader, homebody, self-employed writer and documentary nerd — someone with a unique set of interests, beliefs and needs you may not share. And speaking as a fairly introverted person, I definitely think introverts have a harder time of staying socialized, as I know my instincts are generally not to bother other people with my needs, but to make my own fun as best I can. This is how I try to manage my life and needs. What I do may not work for you:

Whoever said an intelligent person is never bored, or anything along the lines of dismissing boredom as the curse of the lazy, the stupid and the lame, can kiss my ass. Or at least own up to a place of privilege involving relatively short spans of being single, an extroverted nature, supportive family close by, or at the very least a good job involving pleasant company — none of which are readily available to all.

For the rest of us, especially those who face geologic periods of time spent alone at home wrestling with isolation and depression (clinical or just plain vanilla), boredom is a rather demonic occasional visitor. As a working college student/self-employed introvert most of whose friends are not only married but are also insanely busy students, I am sad to say that I am doing well to take a meal with someone else once or twice a month. Spending time with someone I care about once a week is common, thrice is lovely and twice is the average, I’d say.

So how do you live alone as happily and well as you can? Or at least, how do I?

Avoid television. A time-eating, life-sucking device in the wrong hands. Unless you can dole out to yourself only shows you mindfully enjoy, cancel your cable. I did. I actively enjoy some shows and do not hate television — in fact, I adore good television. But I found myself watching Wife Swap with numbed, bored disgust a few times too often, and knew I was wasting hours of my life.

Don’t waste your life.

Consider alternative housing arrangements. Living alone isn’t the only option for people living alone. There are “intentional communities” of all kinds, from basic housemate arrangements to jointly owned collective houses to my 60-year-old mom asking her two best friends to move in with her. My mom is trying to start a collective house for women nearing retirement age, as well as a cohousing arrangement with a shared garden.

My mom is not a hippie; she is a Catholic Republican. She is just exploring creative solutions to her needs.

And I’ve always thought about living communally. I just don’t accept that living alone/having a housemate are the only options. Is there a creative solution available to you? Can you think outside the box?

Avoid convenience food, tobacco and alcohol. Good god is that ever easier said than done. Even though it sucks to cook for yourself, convenience foods — frozen, canned, wrapped and packaged — are expensive and rarely good for me. Plus cooking can be an expressive art form in itself, not to mention a rewarding skill to cultivate, as well as a pleasant way to fill up what might otherwise be an empty evening.

Tobacco and alcohol are ready substitutes for everything missing in your life. Beware replacing missing chunks of life with addiction.

Keep to a schedule. With no one else in the house, I feel like I have greater freedom to sleep in, lay around, do nothing. While this is also hard to combat, keep your mind aware of it and try not to waste life in being slow and dull. Look, I know just the presence of another person is energizing. But we’ll just have to fake it, at least for now. Having a regular schedule of a time to wake, work out, eat, etc. helps keep time from getting away from you.

Schedule regular time with others. I freely admit to being a rigid person (good god but I must look like a weirdo in this blog sometimes — the price of honesty, really), and so I like scheduling regular activities. They’re a great way to get out and be a social animal for a bit — communicate, listen, laugh. Be human. I do or have done lunch with my college friends, church with a friend, brunch after church, knit night, aerobics classes…

Finding a regularly scheduled activity you LIKE gives you a meaningful, reliable and regular connection to the rest of the world, and a guarantee of regular interaction, shared laughter, talk and other things that are very good for human animals.

Consider church. Really. I know I am spoiled in that my city holds one of the few churches a sane person should not be ashamed to attend, but in other cities I liked services at my local MCC, the group of gay-friendly, progressive, feminist churches.

As a non-Christian agnostic former atheist, I find the biggest benefit of church is having yet another avenue of community — friendly faces to see, groups to join, etc.

The #2 reason for me is having my psyche tuned up, in the way that only a good church can do, one that reminds you (in a message worthwhile no matter your beliefs) to forgive others, forgive yourself, be kind, tell the truth, be in the present moment, enjoy life, help people who need help, share… All that good stuff. I find I frankly forget if not reminded fairly often. Anything that maintains mental health is good for singles, who tend as a group to neglect themselves.

Your spirit is like a bicycle: if you never see to its workings, eventually you’ll break down, or at least enjoy a far less pleasant ride.

Exercise. Bleah. Self-explanatory. Hard to do, but the benefits — socialization, better sleep, better able to handle stress, blah blah blah — make it even more valuable for people who have to deal with the stress of handling most every crisis alone.

Regular exercise gives you a place to spend time being social and staying healthy, and having a workout friend (or just people who know you at the gym or on your running route) is yet another avenue of healthy, nourishing interaction. It also fights insomnia, which is itself a lonely business.

Have a form of creative expression that is meaningful and fun to do. This is a biggie. I am a firm believer in that creativity is a a sacred and meaningful activity that everyone should have the time, encouragement and materials to cultivate deeply and integrate into their lives.

You don’t have to be a professional artist. I consider writing, singing and blogging to be legitimate and profoundly satisfying creative activities in my own life. I also make jewelry, felt and knit, and take profound pleasure from the act of my work — choosing yarn, choosing a project, spending careful hours applying a difficult and complex skill to raw materials and ending up with something I am proud and happy to have made.

Whether you design homes, sew, build birdhouses, dance, sing or flip around on a pommel horse, try to find something yours to do, and explore it deeply and visit it often. Call what you do “art” and take it seriously.

Have specific activities at home that you legitimately enjoy and look forward to. Another biggie. Be happy at home. Have some activity there that beckons you.

At the end of an evening, when schoolwork permits, I spend a few hours watching a movie and knitting. It kind of gets old, but not really, as I enjoy watching Doctor Who and my nature documentaries and all my nerdy shit. Give me a little knitting, a cup of tea, a plate of apples and cheese and my velvet blanket, and you have one happy little nerd.

You can find me around Jen Manor reading, knitting, blogging, gardening, cooking and watching movies and documentaries. I also listen to books on tape, preferring nonfiction and interviews, and knit in the evenings as I listen. (BTW there’s all kinds of cool things on the internet that you can watch or listen to from your home computer, from Feynman lectures to the latest TED talk to your favorite knitting podcast.)

Keep your home environment pleasant and clean. You’re going to be spending a lot of time there. Make it a place you like being in.

Have a pet. In the unlikely event you have not yet joined the pet club, if you feel ready, join. You will be surprised at the love you will feel for the animal you bring into your home, and the companionship and love it will provide.

Ask for help when you need it. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this one really hard. It’s almost like keeping out of other people’s business is hardwired into my brain, to the point that I don’t always know when to just pick up the phone, call one of the several people who love me, and ask for what I need.

A cheering up. A bag of catfood I’m too sick to drive out to buy. A casserole to feed me as I recover from whatever illness has felled me.

It’s a modern thing, an American thing, a ruthless and evil thing. You try not to do it and so will I.

Stay in touch. Keep friends and family up to date with your life, even when you don’t see them daily. Call, email, blog. Do something. Work to cultivate your end of the connection. (I freely admit that this is advice I am handing out because I know I need so badly to take it myself.)

Look out for the “me disease.” This happens when you reach a place of stress and isolation so awful that it shifts your perceptions so that it becomes difficult to see other people’s lives through their experiences. You can only see things through the lens of your own suffering. People who have suffered deeply or lived alone for a long time will know what I am talking about.

For example, a friend told me that she and her husband were thinking about selling their house and getting a smaller one. I immediately responded that I knew exactly what it was like to feel trapped in one’s house, overwhelmed by all the work, and desperate for some kind of change, help, something.

She replied that that wasn’t the case at all. It was MY case, but not hers. Her problem was too close to my own crazy places, which made me lose touch with my ability to listen to the problems of others and see them through their eyes.

You’ll know you have this sickening and self-centered disease when you forget to ask after people who are sick and otherwise stop thinking about the people you love and what is going on in their lives.

An awful condition. Look out for it, and fight it by asking people how they are, and listening to what they say. Re-learn to see others.

Sing hallelujah and persevere. I would like to hereby state for the record that living alone is sometimes dreadful, lonely, isolating, boring, hateful and spiritually and emotionally deadening. You will sleep until 10 a.m. You will wander your own house like a ghost. You will find yourself eating crackers for dinner at 8 p.m. while you read an email from a friend about the beautiful hike, dinner and evening walk she and her husband just had. People will commonly not realize how expensive, difficult, lonely and isolating your life can be.

You will have hard times. You will wrestle your own bad nature and be far closer to yourself than many people will ever be. You will become expert at entertaining yourself. You will know yourself well, and face all your own worst habits. You will have nowhere to hide.

If you suffer from depression, whew, may the fates bless you. You may find yourself in a corrosive and dangerous environment requiring vigilance and effort, where cynicism, bitterness and isolation will conspire with shocking strength to habituate you to loneliness, inadequacy, passivity and despair.

When the bad nights come, and they will, you can capitulate or fight. There are tests that other people will withstand that you will never know. There are tests that you will withstand that other people will never know. What to do on a lonely night when meaning and joy drip away is your test.

You can endure, and look to the lesson afterwards. Or — and here’s the art part — you can fight your way out. When you can find the strength to do that, I think you can probably handle almost anything else the normal course of a human life can throw at you.

Good luck.

The only real currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with each other when we’re being uncool.

— Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

31 responses to “The Art of Living Alone

  1. Living alone and having a pet is cheating. Utter solitude and isolationism is the only way to go. And have more televisions than people – you can get away with that when you live alone. You can even put one in the bathroom.

  2. Thou art a lost cause, my friend.

  3. I have a day job in a frantic, crowded, noisy place and I am only too happy to get back to my quiet solitude at home with my artwork and ambient music.

  4. My home used to be a haven too, and I am still not sure what happened. One woman’s haven is another woman’s hell, certainly, and people have different needs, not to mention changing needs.

    And certainly my situation isn’t helped by a raging case of personal dissatisfaction and a dollop of clinical depression. And living alone just grows harder the older I get, and the more complex and ambitious my life and desires become.

    But one thing I have believed for a long time is that most people (certainly not all people) aren’t built to live alone happily and well, and are forced to by circumstance and a society that “says” people who aren’t married, living together or under 18 have no other option than living alone, or working out a housemate situation based on economics and little else.

    To all those who live alone happily and well, I can only offer my profound envy. I’m less good at it than an expert at dealing with it.

  5. Might I recommend the book QuirkyAlone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics.

    http://www.quirkyalone.net/qa/book.php

    Seriously, if you haven’t read it, you must. I know many Quirkyalones who have been empowered by this manifesto, and I think you would definitely benefit from its wisdom. After you read it, let me know what you think.

  6. GG, consider it done. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Jennifer:

    I’ve been thinking about this piece you wrote on living alone. I had planned on responding several days ago, but I’m fairly lazy when it come to making comments on other people’s blogs. And after a few days it seems … I don’t know, sort of crass to respond to something the blogger has moved on from — an item now stale to him or her. But your newer piece, embracing the “Pleasures of Living Alone,” reminded me of my earlier thoughts.

    Your list of the things you personally do to navigate a life of domestic isolation made me realize how I myself succeed (or fail) on these points with varying degrees of success.

    I have managed to do without TV. However, I find that surfing the internet is an equal, if not greater, time-sucker. It doesn’t help that I’m mostly self-employed. Without an externally imposed schedule or a series of deadlines, I tend to drift and procrastinate.

    Exercise is a crucial point to bring up. When I make myself get out and do something — like go for a bike ride — it is always (and I mean 100% of the time) the right thing to have done. And during times (like now) when I make excuses to avoid it, all sorts of other bad habits begin to crowd in. These are the sorts of things I’d not likely do if I didn’t live alone. It’s a mess!

    But I think the most important point you raise concerns scheduling time with other people. I’m very much an introvert, and so I have to make a conscious effort to get out and do things with people. Your blog entries have reminded me how lucky I am that I have found myself surrounded by wonderful people who seem to enjoy my company as well as do I enjoy theirs.

    I was awakened by a phone call this morning from a former student. He wanted to know if he could come over and visit — he was just 20 minutes away, he said with sunshine in his voice. I grumbled in the affirmative. And as I hurried my way through tiding up my living room, taking a quick shower, and getting my espresso machine up and running, I had to stop, take a deep breath, and chastise myself for cursing about “why can’t people just leave me the fuck alone?” This was a friend, I had to remind myself. A man my one age I meet while I taught a film production class for a continuing education center. I enjoy his company, and I don’t get a chance to see him often enough. And then I remembered your blogs on living alone. The previous night I had dinner with the seven people from my novel writing group — new friends I met just a month and a half ago. And tomorrow I’m attending an experimental music event at an avant guard gallery with yet another friend. And it all came back to me: a wealth of friends (of which I am blessed) goes a long way in mitigating an impoverishment in other areas of my life.

    Now I just need to give consideration to some of your other excellent points.

    And on a related note, I’m excited on how this communal living experiment you’re working toward will play itself out. I’m a huge fan of these non-traditional (at least in modern America) forms domestic communes, co-ops, collectives, et al. I’d have signed up in a shot if only I lived closer … and had a dependable job.

    Erik

  8. > it seems … I don’t know, sort of crass to respond to
    > something the blogger has moved on from

    I don’t feel that way. I really welcome comments anytime, and don’t feel I ever really “move on” from something I’ve written, at least not in the sense of not wanting to have a conversation about it.

    > Your list of the things you personally do to
    > navigate
    > a life of domestic isolation made me realize how I
    > myself succeed (or fail) on these points with
    > varying
    > degrees of success.

    Domestic isolation! Love the phrase. I’m not surprised to hear you have found similar work-arounds.

    > I have managed to do without TV. However, I find
    > that
    > surfing the internet is an equal, if not greater,
    > time-sucker. It doesn’t help that I’m mostly
    > self-employed. Without an externally imposed
    > schedule
    > or a series of deadlines, I tend to drift and
    > procrastinate.

    I hear you 100%, and I bet I’m as bad if not worse. I think that at least internet provides semi-intelligent time-wasting, and a much bigger menu. But yes, internet pretty much just replaced TV as a lifesucking beast for a lot of people.

    > Exercise is a crucial point to bring up. When I make
    > myself get out and do something — like go for a bike
    > ride — it is always (and I mean 100% of the time)
    > the
    > right thing to have done.

    So true. No one ever regretted a workout.

    > Your
    > blog
    > entries have reminded me how lucky I am that I have
    > found myself surrounded by wonderful people who seem
    > to enjoy my company as well as do I enjoy theirs.

    You almost seem to be part of a sort of intentional community of artists and neighbors! I had much the same thing for 10 really great years when I lived in a basement apartment and was close friends with 2 sets of couples nearby. It was really an unintentional intentional community, and we constantly ate together and went out together, and were incredibly happy spending time together. While I really do have just as good a support system here, none of my closest friends are neighbors.

    > And it all came back to me: a wealth of
    > friends (of which I am blessed) goes a long way in
    > mitigating an impoverishment in other areas of my
    > life.

    Not mitigating it, but fulfulling it. Providing enough balance that the impoverishment is bearable, and maybe not even all that noticeable anymore…

    > Now I just need to give consideration to some of
    > your
    > other excellent points.

    You and me both.

    > And on a related note, I’m excited on how this
    > communal living experiment you’re working toward
    > will
    > play itself out. I’m a huge fan of these
    > non-traditional (at least in modern America) forms
    > domestic communes, co-ops, collectives, et al. I’d
    > have signed up in a shot if only I lived closer …
    > and
    > had a dependable job.

    We would have let you slide. :0)

  9. Jennifer,
    I have just discovered your site and was surprised that someone as young felt the same as I who am much older. I do have a TV on in the background as I continue to work and surf the net – I do hardly pay attention to it. I do like doing my own thing but notice after not having human contact for about 3 days, I feel it and need some sort of interaction. Being an only child with no children and just a few cousins in a distant state, I do fight the “aloneness” feeling – especially at holidays. I am glad to have discovered that one thing I am not alone in is feeling alone :-)
    thank you for your brilliant words!

  10. Hey Jacque. You are so welcome.

  11. it is pretty much bull crap..

    • Sol,
      I’m happy that you must have brothers and sisters, mom and dad and children. I find those not in the same boat as some of us find it difficult to identify.
      Enjoy those around you.

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  13. Nice one… I was thinking about writing a blog on exactly same topic… although my way of living alone is different than yours, but I fully agree that Living Alone is indeed an Art … and majority of people who don’t understand this art.. thinks living alone is just crap… I just laugh silently at them …

  14. Jennifer, Enjoyed your blog entry on living alone and liking it. Am in search of good ideas on the subject, as I am faced with living alone (separated from my wife for two years, and now suddenly without a significant other, as well). Thanks for your thoughts and Action to make it available to others. Robert

  15. Ms. Saylor,

    I have never needed information and got it so perfectly as I have today with your article. You are an amazing deeply touching writer. Your insite into the soul of the single person is without a doubt a personal one that shows what a loving person you are to write this comprehensive article of help. I’ve lived in a house my entire life and because I am trying to simplify, I am moving into an apartment for the first time. Your article is the roadmap that I have been trying to create for myself, and here it is in writing. Thank you again and may Jah bless your life and give you peace and happiness.
    Smile,
    Carlon

  16. Oh Carlon. Thank you so much. Best of luck in your journey, I will be thinking of you and wishing you success and love.

  17. Jennifer,

    I love your refreshing honesty! I have been a widow for a decade now and have struggled with finding the way to live this life with grace and mindfulness. I have been alternately successful and a miserable failure at times. I am a big believer in exercise and socialization and the positive impact it has, but sometimes I fall off the wagon and find myself self isolating with no motivation! It is then I find it difficult to clamber back out into the world. This usually happens when a week or so goes by with nothing committed to or scheduled on my social calendar! Anyway, thanks for you words.

  18. it is remarkable, the healing from your words… you put the pity party in the back seat of your convertible, turn up the music, and drivvvvve. I am so lucky to know, that while we are not neighbors, we are always available for each other…lovingly, and always laughing in the end.
    Thanks! And let’s take this show on the road, eh?
    First stop, convertible and all, is the beach!
    love you!

  19. “Put the pity party in the back seat of your convertible, turn up the music, and drive.” This is this whole post in a nutshell. Love you. NTW they are several houses for sale on my street, and I think we need to be neighbors ASAP.

  20. Well, what happens when you don’t even have any friends?

  21. As a previous QuirkyTogether whose partner died too young (51) I find myself alone and trying to find a tradition to – not belong to – but be inspired by. So many many widowed seem only to be happy when they have found a new love but I’m certain it must be possible, hard but possible alone.
    This alone has a painful dimension though because the very being alone I am trying to learn to love is so very close to missing the person I loved and still love of course. It is hard to bother at the moment, it’s only me so why do the garden for example. Previously I had enjoyed doing the garden so we could enjoy it together so I have to find the value in myself as reason enough to make the effort. But I’m determined to find it.

  22. I am a 24 Yrs guy from India..I had a break up before 1 yr and still unable to come out of it..I don’t believe in arrange marriage and I m too old for Love marriage and don’t want to take a risk to go through the bad relationship again..

    I m an IT professional and want to set a goal for my life..a worthwhile goal..but suddenly I remember that I m alone! My life seems useless to me..Tried a lot to take it positively but still waiting for a break through..

    What should I do to be alive and live happily?

  23. Hello Shrikant, to my western ears you saying that at 24 you are too old, that your ife is uselss, cannot be true. But I am not standing in your shoes of course.
    Very generally, in my situation, I’m beginning to feel that trying to reach a goal- if it becomes te most important thing in your life, is not a good idea as many things out of your control can go wrong. Rather, have the goal but get vaue from each of the (small) steps on the towards your goal. Treat others well. Often in any business situation, single minded ruthlessness is excused even welcomed but in my experience that is not a good way to lead your life.
    This boils down to mindful living, kindness and compassion.
    Very difficult some days! But I am talking about an inner life, inner goals whereas you are at an age where the outer world beckons.

    Maybe you are already doing OK and just being peaceful in the moment and staying open to the possibility of finding a good love, and with patience would be enough to nudge you towards that meaningful breakthrough.

    Just my thoughts on your post. Nothing concrete I’m afraid.I wish you well.

  24. create something. forget living the past. do the best with what you have and find enjoyment in the freedom of total guilt free choice. Enjoy what you have and do what feels good….my philosophy

  25. kelly anderson

    I have really learned to live alone. I found that I have to really love myself. I have different people I can telepathically communicate with. I can speak my voice and then I can here there voice in mine. Also I spend a lot of time studying. I don’t understand though, I’m really good looking and have a good personality. It looks like I would have a woman in my life.

  26. Hi all.

    Im 46 and Male and after having been recently Divorced and having had several live in relationships in the past of anything from a few years to ten, i now feel like its time to consider living alone.

    Its not that i feel ive failed in these relationships or that i havent enjoyed my time in them but i feel they’ve either run their course or my partners weren’t totally compatible for a lifetime of togetherness with me.

    In essence i think i’m wise now and relationships it seems, are very hard to maintain, hence the reason for my blog here.

    I’ve also learned some nuggets of wisdom along the way from the teachings of some great people. When you don’t live life in the way you really want, as opposed to how you’re expected to by society, there will always be inner conflict. Most of us look outside ourselves for our emotional security rather than within, which is where we should be looking and where the truest path lies.

    Click on this link for a great insight into this….

    http://www.mandarkaranjkar.com/mysticism/the-courage-of-being-alone/

    I wish you all good luck and long and happy lives.

  27. The one who can live alone can only experience true love. Because, if you cannot manage to live alone, you are in relationship out of some need, out of fear of being alone. The one, who can enjoy being alone, knows his inner being without conflicts. He is the one who will be creative, blissful and joyous. Moreover, only he can have a truly loving relationship.

  28. i just had a break up and i had to shift to a house from a hostel(with lots of friends) due to unavoidable circumstances where i have to live alone. i cant seem to cope up. please help. please

  29. It’s nice to know, as the man said “seems I’m not alone in being alone…”
    Thanks

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