Would you holiday overseas alone? Eat dinner in a nice restaurant alone? Go to a movie by yourself? On a Saturday night? If you’re like me, you’d probably do some of these activities on your own but not others.
We all have our comfort zone. I’d happily go to a movie, but in a nice restaurant alone I’d feel like a friendless loser; or more accurately, I’d feel the other diners thought I was a loser.
I acutely remember my first meal alone in a nice restaurant. I was 24 years-old, working in New York as a journalist, and I had to travel to Washington for a political story. When it came to my work, I could be brave. But when it came to dinner, I fell apart. I was determined to eschew hotel room service. Flushed with feminist ardour, I walked into an elegant Georgetown restaurant, thinking, “Why shouldn’t women feel free to……” But ensconced at the table, surrounded by loving couples and small groups of friends, I was sick with self-consciousness. I felt everyone pitied me. I have friends back in New York, I wanted to assure the solicitous waiters. With no book, pre mobile phones, I had nowhere to hide. And I haven’t tried it since.
New research indicates I may have given up too soon. People should be bolder about doing things alone, it says. They might discover they enjoy the activity more than they expected to do. Admittedly, the study didn’t involve people dining alone in a nice restaurant. Even so, its findings are heartening at a time when increasing numbers of people, especially women, are entering their 50s and 60s on their own.
The researchers, Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, of the universities of Maryland and Georgetown, are publishing their full account in the August edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. But the summary, found through the Science of Us website, suggests that if we “just fight through our fears and go to that movie or restaurant alone, we’d have a good time.” The study, based on surveys of Americans, Indians and Chinese, shows we’re comfortable doing “utilitarian” things alone – productive activities with a clear purpose. But if we do “hedonic” things alone – activities that are simply fun – people worry “observers will infer that they could not find friends to accompany them.”
People reduce the stress of doing hedonic things on their own by making the activity look more purposeful which is why so many take a book, lecture notes, a mobile phone or iPad to dinner. They feel they’ll be judged less harshly if they’re looking busy rather than looking at the passing parade. The researchers went further to test whether our fear of doing some activities alone was justified. They organised for university students, walking through the campus, to be invited to visit a nearby art gallery for five or ten minutes. Some students were with friends, others were on their own. The students were asked beforehand how much fun they expected to have, and then to rate the experience after. Those on their own expected to have a worse time than those who went with their friends. But it turned out everyone enjoyed it as much.
The lesson from an admittedly small and limited study is that if you hold back on doing things because you’re on your own, you’re potentially denying yourself pleasure. Give it a go; you might have a better time than you think.
Does this apply to travelling on your own, the bugbear of many singles? I tested the cheery lesson out with a long-single friend of mine. Now 68, David’s been travelling solo for a couple of decades, and if anyone had mastered the art, I thought he’d be a candidate. The theory, he said, might apply to introverts happy in their own company but travelling alone was a curse for an extrovert like himself: “I need a proper conversation every three days to maintain my sanity.” He’d turned to tours but the ones he could afford that exempted the singles supplement were full of “bogans” or young people. This was not always a problem. He’s travelled with friends, lovers and by himself. And he knows what he prefers: “An experience shared is so much more meaningful than on one’s own.” Well, that’s his story.
It turns out increasing numbers of Australians are travelling solo – it’s tourism’s growth sector, according to Roy Morgan research. Over 40 per cent of them are in the 50+ age group. Most of them are travelling to visit friends and family but many others are going for “rest and recreation”. A whole new singles industry has emerged to help give them a good time. Is it doing its job? I’d like to hear.
I’m having second thoughts about dining alone. With so much bar dining in nice restaurants available now, perhaps I would give it try if I needed to. I could sit on a stool, eat, drink and look around happily, I think. I’d be much less self-conscious now; I’d realise everyone is too wrapped up in their own world to give me a moment’s thought. And stripped of worrying about people’s judgments, I just might enjoy myself.
But it’s single older people (I’m not single), more than researchers, who can really say whether conquering your fears, overcoming self-consciousness, and giving things a go is the key to having a good time on your own. Or whether some activities are meant to be shared.