There are days when I want to have lunch alone at work – not because I feel low, but simply because I crave my alone time. More often than not, however, people are slightly puzzled when I tell them I had lunch alone. When did wanting to spend some time with myself become so abnormal?
The modern-day narrative of having a healthy social life teeming with friendships is all too familiar. It is the subject of our most cherished sitcoms (yes, I am referring to Friends), it is the living, breathing life of Instagram stories, and its benefits have been backed by science for decades: social relationships are positively correlated with longevity at a universal level. These narratives are right in emphasising the value of having connections. Money might make life materially comfortable, but it is friends who give us hope, meaning and emotional support. To quote from one of my favourite shows: “Whatever you do in this life, it is not legendary unless your friends are there to see it.”
Nonetheless, my experience at several workplaces reflects a fundamentally ill-informed attitude regarding socialising: that any time spent alone is a cause of worry, or to be more straightforward, a sign of weakness. This misconception has undoubtedly been aggravated by the existence of social media platforms where people share real time updates about their weekend plans. The fear-of-missing-out culture, also known as “FOMO”, makes us feel like wanting to spend time alone is uncool and boring, when in reality, it is perfectly okay to binge-watch Netflix by yourself. This thinking also manifests itself in the working world, where employees sometimes feel pressured to join their colleagues for food and drinks after work, although they would very much rather be at home instead.
Our surroundings, too, shape sociability to a large but subtle extent. At SMU, for example, much of our curriculum emphasises interacting with our peers, from group projects to extra-curricular activities to networking events. In short, we are subconsciously ingrained with the idea that we need to make friends and build connections in the working world to get ahead. As such, some of us may find ourselves in the presence of friends only to remain in a social circle. Spending time alone, however, is more than just a coping mechanism for life’s problems – it is a therapeutic outlet to sort and reconcile one’s thoughts. Indeed, research has shown that a certain amount of alone-time is critical to increasing mental resilience, self-acceptance, empathy, and concentration. A Harvard study, for example, found that people who set aside fifteen minutes alone every day to reflect about lessons they learned performed 23 percent better compared to those who did not.
Admittedly, the pressure to constantly have social networks weighs down on people who are shy or quiet or those who identify themselves as introverts. Their lack of sociability is often mistaken for “anti-social” behaviour, which then leads to further exclusion in group settings. Introverts, however, are incredibly comfortable with being alone and possess the ability to form deeper, richer one-on-one relationships as compared to extroverts. In fact, some of the world’s most eminent business leaders, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg, all share the introversion personality style. The point is that we, as a society, need to put less pressure on introverts to open up. For introverts, taking realistic baby steps is key: it is a lot more effective to start with one-on-one small talk in the presence of a friend before diving right into unsupervised group conversations.
In the meantime, here are my blessings to anyone who wants to spend one weekend cocooned at home after a week full of mishaps: make a date out of your weekend, a date with yourself. Read that book you have been wanting to read forever but never really got around to doing, treat yourself to expensive brunch, enjoy a glass of Pina Colada by the beach, and allow yourself to engage in unperturbed, important introspection. In this age of hyper-social-media-usage, let us reclaim the lost art of self-fulfilment and appreciating our own company. Having the courage to cancel your weekend plans to self-care does not make you lame; it makes you sexy.