The straightforward headlines is this: Americans are spending *significantly* more time alone — and were doing so before the pandemic. Between 2003 and 2019, the aggregate time-spent-alone, according to the American Time Use survey, went from 43.5% to 48.7% — again, that’s pre-pandemic. Then, between 2019 to 2021, the percentage of time spent alone went up to 50.5%. (At the same time, time spent with people
One of the greatest joys of living alone, for me, is to think of my great-great grandmothers (and further back than that) who were constantly surrounded by noise, and required by circumstance and custom and law to acquire a husband and raise large numbers of children. I'm single by choice; I live alone; I have a career; I have a lovely home. I am living a life they could only have dreamed about, and I am so, so grateful for it.
I used to be an extremely social person, the one that got the group together. Then, I ran into reluctance. Some friends had kids. Some had limited free time, and wouldn’t commit to a date until closer in. Some would commit and then cancel at the last minute. For a while, I took it very personally: they didn’t just have a conflict, they were rejecting me! Then, I decided to flip my viewpoint. I would do things I really wanted to do. If I mentioned it and someone said they wanted to come, they were welcome, but I would go, regardless of whether I had a date.
I got used to doing things alone - movies, restaurants, concerts, book events - I’ve even bought season baseball tickets alone. Sometimes, when you do things alone, you actually meet other people who enjoy what you like to do. And you end up with company after all.
I’m a lifelong introvert, who has recently discovered I’m also autistic. I *thrive* on being alone, and always have. My mental health has improved significantly since COVID, and that’s all down to the space it gave me to be completely alone, with no pressure to say yes to invitations just because neurotypical society says I’m supposed to need and crave social interaction. I think projection by extroverts plays a large part in this narrative, and for myself, I’m rejecting it.
Joining to introverts here to say I never, ever get enough time alone :)
But one of the unseen structures that forces alone-ness is our car-centric culture. The way most North American cities are built is around car dependence, and I don’t know that most people really see how that shapes our interactions and how we spend time. When people think about how teens are interacting with friends online instead of in person, how often is anyone looking at where they live? If they want to see friends, do they have to get a ride or borrow a car?
This matters! There’s a great group in Washington state that did a good survey around disability and public transportation. Upwards of 30% of people who are eligible to drive (as in, not children), can’t or don’t, either permanently or temporarily. I bet that’s pretty indicative across the board, and it doesn’t even take into account how car dependence changes choices for people who do drive.
Just a general reminder as I read through these comments for subscribers: the Navigating Friendships and Community-Building threads in the Discord are really wonderful for, uh, navigating some of these more challenging elements of seeking out time *not* alone. (There's also a great thread for people who live alone, too, to talk about the joys and the challenges). If you're a paid sub and haven't yet joined the Discord, just email me (annehelenpetersen at gmail) and we'll get you set up!
Wow, I’m surprised at the number of people commenting so far who love being alone.
My husband and I are alone more than we would like.
We have a 3 year old. We just bought a house, moving into a new neighborhood of our town. We both work full time, me with an additional evening job. We are both introverts.
That said, I would kill for more company. I am alone bc between working, parenting, and household management, there is very little time left over to engineer a social life.
I also feel like all my friends with kids are equally busy and any request to hang out is an imposition. We have very infrequent play dates or visits with adult friends. I don’t know what the hell everyone else is doing, but they’re certainly not reaching out to us to arrange events.
Covid has compounded that. At any given moment, someone we know is getting over a sickness, developing symptoms, or being extra careful in preparation for a grandparent visit.
Extreme busyness also means that there’s no spontaneous hanging out. I can’t just text someone to just hang out that weekend. We need to plan weeks in advance and that just feels like too big a burden. Ugh.
To sum up , making and keeping friends is more mental work on top of all of the mental work I am juggling, and I just can’t manage it. The same thing applies to hanging out with my husband: we hardly have any quality time together because that would mean more planning and execution.
I would love for someone to reach out to me and make hanging out happen.
I can’t really speak all that much to the wider adult experience (I’m a student rn, and our experiences tend to be significantly different from that of adults who have graduated), but I can speak to my experiences as a kid/teen (which I was fairly recently) and to my experiences as a student. I think people often complain about kids staying inside on their phones all the time not meeting with friends, but don’t really understand the reasons why (which are out of their control). I think parents are a lot more protective these days and are much less willing to allow their kids out on their own or to meet with friends on their own. When my mum was a kid in the seventies, she started walking to school without parents at the age of 6 (granted with her older sister, but she was only nine). Many people would consider that neglectful if it happened today. She was concomitantly ofc given a lot more freedom to meet up with her friends. But not only did she have more freedom, but so did her friends. I had relatively high amounts of freedom when I was a kid to meet up with friends, but my friends didn’t and so I couldn’t really meet up with v easily. Not only this, but parents also schedule their kids’ days alot more so even if they’ve got the freedom, they don’t have the time. So I think that explains (possibly more so) why we’re seeing higher rates of time spent alone amongst kids and teens. But I think this has more long term implications, which may be why we’re seeing more of this aswell amongst young adults. Because if you didn’t learn very well how to meet up with people when you were a kid, then you may find it harder to meet up with people when you’re an adult, and so I expect this may be why the young adults of today may be meeting up less with people than when my mum’s generation were young adults.
As a student, I can also talk more about my experiences here. Since I’ve come to uni, I acc meet up with people alot more than I ever used to as a kid (and I expect more than I will when I’ve graduated and gotten a job and settled down etc.) and so I think this can be a useful comparison - what is it about being a student that makes it easier to meet up with people than it is for older adults? Part of it I think is geography: most of my friends at uni live like 5-10 minutes away from me, and so it’s much easier to just meet up on a whim and play cards or something. This is often not the case for older adults who, particularly today with continued suburbanisation and higher levels of geographical mobility (as per the economy) are much more likely to live apart from eachother. The other is time and responsibilities. There are plenty of responsibilities that many older adults have that I don’t: jobs, for some kids, elderly parents etc. these obvs take up a lot of time, which I don’t have to deal with today as a student. And once again, critically, I think we’ve got to recognise the compounding effects of these shifts, for even if you as, say, a 30 year old acc have a decent amount of time, your friends might not, making it harder to meet up with friends.
Also of note is the decline of third places (stuff like religious institutions, or clubs or societies, or for kids youth clubs etc.) which facilitate socialising. This I expect is partly because of the decrease of people’s ability to use them (along with other wider shifts like secularisation), which means they have shrunk, which ironically makes it harder for people to then use them.
One other thing to note is demographic shifts which I think may have an impact. We do have an ageing population, and older people, because of physical difficulties (or the physical difficulties of their friends), as well as due to windowing, and their children having moved out (who often now have less time) are more likely to spend more of their time alone. So if more adults are older, then more adults will be spending more of their time alone in general
What doesn’t show up is the difference between alone and lonely. Being around people frequently doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of those connections. Relationships with children, colleagues, acquaintances can only get you so far.
I've heard a lot of people in our circle mention that Covid also allowed for some distinctions to be made about the people we chose to hang out with. There was a calculus examining how our approaches to Covid aligned (which often bled into political alignment) adjusted by a desire to continue hanging out. Groups shrunk. WFH meant that the face-to-face interactions and the muscle of small-talk changed significantly. Our groups shrunk even more.
As an introvert there's a ton of upside. It's easy to be alone - but I think I need a little friction in my life. Growth has always been preceded by a bit of discomfort in my life. I worry that I've given myself over to algorithms that program my music, movies and media and staying in that comfort zone can calcify the person I've become and make me less likely to be actively engaged with my larger community. I worry I'm throwing up fences and getting too comfortable being alone and becoming that fist shaking old man outraged by anything that doesn't align with my carefully curated day-to-day.
Does being with your children count has being alone? I’d argue that for a lot of people it sometimes feels even more lonely when you’re caring for your young kids, alone.
Setting aside time spent with those in my household, I am almost always alone. I choose to remain alone in order to protect myself from COVID-19 as much as possible. I do not trust other people to keep me or themselves safe, although that's not entirely the fault of individuals; our government and media obfuscate a lot of danger in order to keep the economy running at pre-pandemic norms. I think that conversations about the decline of time spent with others highly privilege in-person and synchronous interaction over virtual and/or asynchronous interaction, which I think points to the able-ism that permeates our society plus the prevalence of very conservative/uninventive notions about which relationships, which interactions, count as authentic and valuable. Over the past few years, I realize that I sometimes feel more connected to people online who I haven't seen in-person for years or never at all, and conversely I realized that I tolerated a lot of toxicity from people I used to see only in-person.
I straight up think it’s a matter of poverty and burnout. In other words, I Blame Late -Stage Capitalism.
Adults are working multiple jobs, or working ridiculous hours, or commuting for a big chunk of the day, or any combination of those. We simply haven’t the energy or means to also have a thriving social or creative life. I had the great fortune of working with lovely people, and having close ties with neighbours in a pop-in community. When my household moved from our close-knit downtown big city home to our medium city home in 2021, I realized how much I’d been socially dependent on my environment. I’d had that densely populated, interdependent community, without having to build it independently of work and home.
So many thoughts come to mind. First, I'm just slightly more introverted than extroverted, meaning that I need time alone just slightly more than I need time with people. When I spend too much time alone, my depression increases. When I'm encountering new social situations, I feel more anxious, which is a catch 22 because the only way to make new friends is to encounter that initial anxiety. For the last decade, I've generally wanted to have more friends and feel more connected, while also struggling to know what to do about that.
Then, a few years ago, I left my (liberal) church. I grew up in church and church controlled how I organized my free time and my social life. As an adult, I sought out church independently, looking especially for community and connection. In the last church I was part of, I was very active - I volunteered and led youth groups and knew the leadership - and still felt like almost no one there truly knew me. That broke my heart, and felt confusing because I had put myself out there. But once I left, I was forced to figure out that community piece without church. (I know I'm not alone in this, but I think it may speak to a larger pattern of people leaving institutions and then not being sure how to build community without that infrastructure.)
The leaving was very hard, and very good. And my therapist helped a lot. As covid restrictions were easing, she encouraged me to make the communities that I wanted to be part of happen. To invite people over, to be the first to initiate. I had friends through work, and book club, and I realized that I was good at bringing people together. I also joined a local roller derby team, and was shocked at quickly and authentically friendships formed when we were all sweating together for the same purpose. Quite frankly, it was what I had always hoped church would be - actually inclusive and authentic.
But then, my husband and I moved from Indiana, where I had worked hard to build all these connections, to Massachusetts. We have family here, and the move makes sense for a whole lot of reasons. But I knew that losing the communities I had worked so hard to build would be the biggest loss for me about this move. So now, I'm starting over again (in terms of local friendships). And it's hard and lonely. I know from past experience that putting myself out there is the only way I'll find those connections again, but it takes a lot of vulnerability and courage and energy to do that. It can be hard to find that energy when I'm busy trying to get settled in a new job / new house etc. I don't have a nice bowtie of an energy here, because this is just where I am right now. Thanks for the prompt, AHP.
I hope this addition to the conversation will be useful and not annoying. I’m in a very happy marriage, so that of course keeps me from being alone, but I also actively seek out people to interact with. I play a daily Quordle game with 3 friends (we chat about it constantly via message), I go out for walks or a beer with a kaleidoscope of friends at least once a week, I regularly correspond with friends in writing (one form or another), and I have adult children who I see on average once every two weeks. What weaves it all together is my desire for interaction--I share articles, ideas, solicit interaction, etc. I ask! (And get asked too, I swear--I’m not that weird guy.) My loner wife thinks I’m nuts sometimes, but I just really love the interaction. I wouldn’t know how to frame that into “advice” for anyone else, so I’ll put it out there like that.
As an introvert, my favorite thing is to be “alone together” with my family, lol. In the winter, we inevitably gather around the fireplace after dinner. My daughter and I are reading our books, my husband is doing a little work on his laptop or playing games on his phone, my high school son is studying, my middle school son is doing homework. The dog is stretched out in front of the fireplace luxuriating in the heat. Someone takes a break to pet him. Occasionally we’re chatting and laughing but there are periods of concentration and quiet too. It’s just the best. It feels like utter bliss to me. It’s so comfortable and relaxing. We’re together but still doing our own thing.
Aside from this, my next favorite thing is playing board games together, preferably Scrabble or some version of Trivial Pursuit. The kids prefer noisy games like Exploding Kittens or Cards Against Humanity (the kid friendly version. Those games are fun but often give me a headache or leave me feeling depleted.
I am a divorced, childless woman in her 30's and absolutely LOVE living alone. The knowledge that my house will be exactly as I left it when I return is so reassuring to me. I now have the perspective of alone vs. lonely - I tell the younger women in my life who lament not having a significant other etc that there is absolutely no kind of lonely like the kind of lonely you feel when you're in a relationship with someone that isn't working, or they aren't very nice to you, or you give up some essential part of of yourself to continue in the relationship because the societal conditioning that the scariest thing is to be a single childless woman. I love reading the comments here and seeing so many people who are not afraid to do things by themselves - time is going to pass regardless so relish your freedom and do exactly what you want to do when you want to do it!