Learning to be alone is a superpower

Seb Grynko
8 min readNov 7, 2020

I remember a scene from the movie Meet Joe Black. Spoilers Alert. Brad Pitt is death incarnated. Death took over the body of Brad Pitt to live as a human. In the movie, he fell in love with a doctor who is played by the beautiful Claire Forlani.

Every so often, he goes to visit her at the hospital. On one of his visits, he stumbled upon an older Jamaican woman who appears to have some sort of psychic intuition. She felt that Brad Pitt was death incarnated. At first, she was scared that death was coming for her but Brad Pitt told her that he was on a vacation.

On another visit to the hospital, Brad Pitt came to see her. The older woman asked him why he was staying on Earth. Brad Pitt told her that he was in love with the doctor and that he felt so lonely before. The older woman told him that he should not fool himself, all of us are pretty alone here too.

That line has always stayed with me. I know that these days loneliness is rampant and causing a lot of despair, depression, and mental issues. Dating/meeting apps are overpopulated with lonely people. Sebastien Junger, the author of the great book — Tribe, wrote that when people used to live in closed knit community/tribes there were much fewer inhabitants around them but everybody knew one another and had a role in the functioning of the group.

There was a sense of belonging and solidarity within the community. That’s why betrayal in some of those tribes was often punished by death or banishment. Before, we might have been surrounded by 40–50 people whom we all knew and cared for, and feel “whole”. Nowadays, we live in cities where we might be surrounded by millions of strangers, none of which we have connections with aside from a few acquaintances and friends.

For those of you who have read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. You probably heard about the Roseto effect. That chapter has always fascinated me. Roseto is a small town in Pennsylvania. That whole community had migrated to the US from a small village in Italy. The men in this particular village were suffering significantly fewer health issues than other communities around, even though their diets, exercise levels, and lifestyle were not necessarily “healthy” in the eyes of what we now think is healthy or not healthy.

That phenomenon was called the Roseto effect. The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Roseto effect is the phenomenon by which a close-knit community experiences a reduced rate of heart disease. The effect is named for Roseto, Pennsylvania. The Roseto effect was first noticed in 1961 when the local Roseto doctor encountered Dr. Stewart Wolf, then head of Medicine of the University of Oklahoma, and they discussed, over a couple of beers, the unusually low rate of myocardial infarction in the Italian American community of Roseto compared with other locations. Many studies followed, including a 50-year study comparing Roseto to nearby Bangor. As the original authors had predicted, as the Roseto cohort shed their Italian social structure and became more Americanized in the years following the initial study, heart disease rates increased, becoming similar to those of neighboring towns.

From 1954 to 1961, Roseto had nearly no heart attacks for the otherwise high-risk group of men 55 to 64, and men over 65 had a death rate of 1% while the national average was 2%. Widowers outnumbered widows, as well.[1]

These statistics were at odds with a number of other factors observed in the community. They smoked unfiltered stogies, drank wine “with seeming abandon” in lieu of milk and soft drinks, skipped the Mediterranean diet in favor of meatballs and sausages fried in lard with hard and soft cheeses. The men worked in the slate quarries where they contracted illnesses from gases and dust.[5] Roseto also had no crime and very few applications for public assistance.[5]

Wolf attributed Rosetans’ lower heart disease rate to lower stress. “‘The community,’ Wolf says, ‘was very cohesive. There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Houses were very close together, and everyone lived more or less alike.’” Elders were revered and incorporated into community life. Housewives were respected, and fathers ran the families. After that community was gentrified and a more “modern” way of life was introduced, the reduced numbers of heart attacks aligned with the other communities around.

I am not here to argue one lifestyle against another. Nor am I here to talk about the vicissitudes of the modern world. Yes, the modern western world has put us as individuals competing against each other for the spoils of capitalism.

Nowadays, it’s all about getting the most and standing out. During the bygone days, standing out in a tribe was not encouraged as you can see in Native American tribes or those old European communities. Those groups were egalitarian.

Stands to reason that when placing more importance on the individual over the community. People will be more driven by their “selfish” desire over the desire of the group.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing? I have my opinion but this is not an article about the modern world. This is an article about loneliness, solitude, and how to better deal with it. Now, we know and understand that our sense of belonging and community is important to our well-being.

The times we are living in now have exposed that need even more. The lockdowns, the seclusions, the restrictions have prevented us from being around other people as much as we want. It has led a lot of us to involuntary solitude and a significant portion of that to loneliness.

A sense of belonging and community seem to matter a great deal to our mental welfare and that’s very true. Yet, we live in a modern world where a lot of times that’s not really part of the cultural landscape anymore. Yes, it can be re-created but it takes time and effort. One might need to move to another place. Find the right people to be around and strategize a collective effort.

I live in Southeast Asia, and I still see this sense of tribe/community especially in Laos. That being said, what can we do about it? I have been taught Buddhism from an early age. In the teachings of the Buddha, there is great emphasis on self-reliance.

The Buddha used to say that we should make ourselves into an island. We should not let other people have too much of an effect on us. We should detach. Now, I want to clarify something. Detachment does not mean being callous, cold, distant, and obnoxious. No, detachment means that people have little effect on our peace of mind.

It means that we can be alone. It means that we don’t rely on others to make us happy. Everything is impermanent, therefore when you rely too much on external things for your happiness you are bound to suffer more than you have too.

Yes, being part of a community is great and will help you have joy, a community, and a sense of belonging. And yes, I think that perhaps our modern societies should aspire to go back to a closer model of those good old tribe/community days. Let us dream together.

In the meantime, it would be great for us to understand that we can find happiness here and now. We don’t need anything or anybody. I met monks who spent months, years alone and are the happiest people you can ever meet in your life. They wander around the forests of southeast Asia and meditate in caves.

There is nobody around them. They are completely alone and are happy wanderers in search of the truth. Now, that might be an extreme example. I will give you my own example. When I was 19, I spent 3 months in a meditation center.

I was very alone (not lonely), I barely spoke to anybody during those 3months but it was one of the happiest times of my life. Fast forward to ten years later, I spent the greater part of the last 3 years of my life alone. Not because I don’t like people but because I wanted to learn how to be happy alone and self-reliant.

I, actually, love people. I love a lot of people. However, when you are alone. You can learn to have a relationship with yourself. A lot of us don’t want to face the outside silence and the crazy noises inside that can come with being alone especially at the beginning.

I know many people who are or have been in relationships just because they don’t want to be alone. Their unwillingness to be alone often supersedes their desire for a better-suited partner therefore they pick whomever they can find and that’s never fair to both parties involved.

I have a good friend who is going through this right now. He took a vow of chastity to learn how to deal with his desperate need to have someone in his life. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be with someone. To want to be part of a community. That’s all great and dandy.

However, we need to cultivate a relationship with ourselves. I feel that a lot of relationships nowadays are superficial. I think one of the reasons for that is people often favor quantity over quality.

The problem with quantity is that you don’t really put in the time to have the quality. We just want to have some form of companionship, any type of companionship so the bar is not very high.

Anybody will do. Another reason is probably also because we don’t spend a lot of time with our own self. We have to go deep with our own selves so we can have a meaningful relationship with ourselves and therefore others as well.

Does it make sense? Or am I just being crazy? Naval Ravikant said on the Joe Rohan podcast that having the ability to be happy alone is a superpower. I agree. When we are alone, we can learn so much about ourselves. We develop natural empathy, kindness, and compassion because we can’t escape ourselves so we need to develop those qualities in order to have a great relationship with our own self.

It helps a great deal when you relate to others because you can understand better. You can go deeper and have more meaningful, fulfilling relationships and also you do not need them for your happiness so you won’t treat them as consumer goods and throw them once you are done with them.

Let us learn how to be alone. Loneliness just means you did not make friends with yourself. Once you do, once you start treating yourself as one of your closest friends with kindness, patience, care, and love, your life will be completely different forever.

Self-love is key. Start treating yourself with warmth and compassion. Do this for you. Look in the mirror and say: “We are in this together and I love you”. You are good enough and the more time you will spend with yourself the more beauty you will be able to see, encourage, and grow.

Yes, there will some unwholesome negative things that might be hard to face and that’s why you need the tools of kindness, patience, and empathy to be able to look at them with the eyes of a loving mother and let go of them.

Water the plants, not the weeds. Cultivate your own garden as Voltaire used to say. Take the time for yourself. It will take time, effort, and determination but it’s all worth it. Your life will be greatly improved. I guarantee it.