How many emails do you get a day? Are WhatsApp group chats constantly blowing up your phone? And when was the last time you opened your diary to see a row of blissfully uninterrupted blank pages stretched out ahead? Just asking for a friend.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately - in between replying to an avalanche of emails and praying that the other person cancels first - and have subsequently really wound myself up about how little alone time I truly have. It’s a nice break from feeling anxious about being anxious, but still. I do worry that I have allowed myself to get to the point where daily digital harassment is the new normal, but that somewhere along the line, I’ve also swallowed the belief that having a jam-packed schedule is a key rung on the ladder to fulfilment. After all, these days, busy is a status symbol. If I can fit you in any time in the next six weeks, I must not be doing it right. Somewhere between side-hustles and social media, I’ve forgotten how to be alone. But not just physically alone - the far scarier proposition of being alone with my thoughts. And when it comes to mental wellbeing, surely that’s got to have some kind of long-term negative impact?
“Time alone means connecting to your true self,” Dr. Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of Lighthouse Arabia tells me. “Many people don’t know who they are unless they’re being reflected back at themselves through a relationship or a role, and we often get stuck in the roles we play… employee, parent, friend, wife. Being alone, tolerating the anxiety that first surfaces, and then spending time getting to know yourself as you would a new friend, is essential for establishing a connection with yourself. But it needs to be intentional and conscious.”
That’s wisdom for the ages, but it’s no secret that the so-called connectivity of modern life is making us feel more disconnected to our real selves than ever. “We have our virtual image, and also our image in real life that we’re both constantly managing. People are investing so much time in their digital persona that they have lost complete touch with who they are. Couple that with the noise of technology, a fast-paced existence and demanding parenting, and we don’t stand a chance unless we are deliberate about connecting with ourselves,” Dr. Saliha explains.
So what’s the answer? Could it be as simple as a big trip and a small backpack? It’s been 13 years since I read Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert’s game-changing memoir about globe-trotting and self-discovery. Has it really taken me 12 years and 11 months to realise that she may have actually been on to something?
I’ll be honest, I felt disproportionately exhilarated by my own audacity after tentatively typing ‘solo travel’ into Google. Rather disappointingly, however, I found that I am neither a pioneer, nor am I Liz Gilbert’s hopeful protegee. It turns out solo travel is rapidly on the rise, specifically among women and millennials, with searches up by 40 per cent since 2015. Pinterest also noted a 350 per cent increase in women pinning solo travel ideas since 2014. Even better, there are countless sites, features and apps dedicated to sharing the safest places for women to travel to alone (Ampersand’s brilliantly named Wander Woman Index ranked Japan, France and Spain as the top three). Solomoons most definitely A Thing - and I can really see why.
“When we travel, especially to places where no one knows us, we can start to get in touch with the parts of us we can’t readily access due to our different roles that get automatically engaged,” Dr. Saliha tells me. “Additionally, the world is our mirror and it reflects back to us who we are in those roles, relationships and places. By going to new destinations, you can feel inspiration as well as have access to parts of you that you’ve never had access to before.”
Danae Mercer, a travel journalist well-versed in the subject, also advises, “I'd absolutely recommend taking a solomoon. Travelling by yourself is incredibly freeing and challenging, and because of these things, it makes us grow. We're put in strange situations that we don't know how to handle, and we only have ourselves to figure it out. There's power in that.”
Dr. Saliha agrees, telling me that personal authority is a crucial building block for finding happiness. “We often hand over the responsibility for someone to fulfil us, make us happy, love us, or complete us, but traveling alone creates a space for you to take full responsibility for yourself. It’s a great metaphor for life; while you can talk to others and enjoy their company, a certain distance is necessary in all relationships so that you can both be happy. You have to take ownership of your days, plan them and not wait for others to do that for you.”
It’s exactly the sentiment that Sharan Sunner, a Dubai-based PR, shared with me just before her seventh solo trip - this time to Masai Mara: “It all started when I realised that I was never going to go if I waited for someone to go with me.”
‘I think a friend would have been a crutch; to be solo made me really focus on everything happening in my head,” Danae revealed, “but the most important thing it’s taught me is that there is true kindness in people. I have been lost so, so many times (bad sense of direction), and people have gone out of their way to help me. Strangers have opened their homes and their lives to me multiple times. And now that I'm getting older, I'm trying to do what I can to return the favour. It's a really special thing.” Flying solo never sounded better.