How to be an expert at being alone

By Francesca Specter

Photo: Anemone Nielsen

Being comfortable spending time by yourself is actually a super power, it just takes a few little tricks to master…

With Valentine’s Day coming up, your romantic partner (or lack thereof) may be front of mind. But whatever your relationship status, it may well be time you were thinking of another central relationship: the one you have with yourself. Regardless of life stage, a growing number of us are embracing the positive power of alone time – or what’s known as ‘ensam är stark’, the Swedish expression for the ‘power of one’.


Just look at the housing trends: here in Sweden, we have one of the highest rates of single-person households in the EU (almost two million, or 41 per cent of all households), while solo dwelling is the most common household set-up in Norway too. Across the EU, single-person households without children increased by 28.5 per cent between 2009 and 2021. But positive solitude (a phenomenon I coined ‘alonement’ back in 2019) isn’t simply about living alone or being single. According to Dr Nicola McCaffrey (aka The Nordic Therapist), it’s a “rich psychological experience” available to us all, that offers “increased productivity and creativity” and a deeper connection with the self.

Photo: Anemone Nielsen

That’s been the experience for Jodie Harrison, 28, who moved from the UK to Stockholm eight years ago, and has fallen in love with ‘me time’ despite not spending “any time alone” before moving. “Before I made friends, I wrote a list of things I wanted to explore in this new city – and went alone,” she says. She discovered “being by myself is another level of relaxation I’d not felt before” and now books an annual solo summer holiday spent “swimming all day, reading and listening to music”.

While Harrison’s experience was positive, solitude may well be ‘uncomfortable’ if you’re not used to it – so how to reap the benefits? Firstly, avoid confusing alone time with loneliness. “Being alone is a physical state, while being lonely is a painful emotional state where you feel a gap between the connections that you need and the connections you have,” says McCaffrey. It’s normal to both love solitude and occasionally feel lonely, she emphasises. “It’s a common, familiar feeling,” she says – and actually a key step to valuing alone time is acknowledging your own potential for loneliness, which gives you the ‘power to heal’.

Photo: Anemone Nielsen

Healing loneliness (and embracing solitude) begins with achieving the right solitude/social time balance in your daily life. According to McCaffrey, the balance looks different for everyone – “knowing yourself and what you need” is key, she says. Popular wisdom suggests we all exist on a spectrum towards ‘extroversion’ (energised by social connection) or ‘introversion’ (drained by it), with research indicating this has a genetic basis – so acknowledging where you fit on this spectrum may be helpful. McCaffrey suggests you ask yourself: “Do I prioritise and make opportunities to connect with people? Do I schedule in solitude and time to nourish myself?”

As she’s gotten older, Harrison has embraced her natural ‘introversion’. While visiting family in the UK, she honours her solitude needs by “setting time aside to go for a walk or shopping alone” to “clear her head”. Meanwhile, she has a deep sense of connection to her Stockholm network of “friends that have become my family” which prevents her feeling lonely. Sharing her solo experiences also helps: “If I spend a day by myself, I have multiple people I can share that story with,” she says.

Alone time can be a fluctuating commodity; we appreciate it more or less depending on our current life stage. That’s been the experience of Anna-Marie Hartvigsen, 29, from Odense. Once a “raging extrovert” for whom “meeting new people was [a] drug”, Hartvigsen’s solitude needs have changed “dramatically” since co-founding her business, Female Invest.

Photo: Anemone Nielsen

“I’m constantly expected to have social interactions: during the day with investors, employees, corporate partners; or at evening work events,” she says. To counterbalance this, Hartvigsen puts ‘No Plan Plans’ in her calendar. “If I have a social event on a Tuesday, I’ll schedule Monday and Wednesday as NPPs,” she explains. While it “takes courage” to set boundaries (like requesting house guests only stay two nights), Hartvigsen finds solitude makes her “calm and focused”. “I used to think people who spent time alone were lonely,” she says. “Now I understand it’s a flex in itself, because it requires you to actually enjoy your own company.”

If Harrison and Hartvigsen’s experiences sound positive, but you’re still feeling uncomfortable about embracing solitude, McCaffrey recommends “starting small” (much like Harrison did with her solo day trips in Stockholm): “Begin by setting aside five or ten minutes to be by yourself and grow things from there.” Remember: even if you’re not ready to embrace solo holidays or living alone, a little goes a long way. “Inserting a little solitude into your overfilled schedule is never a waste of time,” says McCaffrey.

Francesca Specter is the author of Alonement: How To Be Alone & Absolutely Own It and host of the Alonement podcast.