Despair not, my fellow independent crusaders. Despite all those scary headlines, being single can actually be good for you. Singles are more likely to exercise and less likely to gain weight than married people, among other things. And while past research has shown that married couples reap more health benefits, these effects have been lessening in recent years (or maybe they never existed).
So why do people act like singleness is the worst? Part of the problem is that many don’t differentiate between being single and being lonely—though separating the two is crucial.
Loneliness is bad for health, but not having a romantic partner doesn’t automatically mean someone is lonely, says Georganna Sedlar, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. People who have many social connections and socialize regularly can still feel lonely, just like people who spend a lot of time alone may enjoy the peace and quiet. (People in relationships can be lonely, too, as all couples counselors know.) And for those of us who are single, lonely and derive self-resigned pleasure from tagging our Facebook posts with #foreveralone, it doesn’t mean we’re doomed.
“Chronic loneliness is associated with negative outcomes in health, thinking and behavior, but it can also motivate us to seek out connections or reconnect with people that we know,” Sedlar says.
Watch out for negative thinking traps
Letting yourself spiral into a pattern of negative thinking is much like stumbling into a fire swamp: there’s a high likelihood you’ll get sucked into a pit of lightning sand. “It creates a downward spiral where your negative thoughts may lead to distressing feelings, which may lead to you isolating yourself. But that usually only makes you feel worse and prevents you from doing things that would help you feel better,” says Sedlar.
Instead of dwelling on what makes you unhappy or isn’t going your way, try focusing instead on what you’re grateful for. “It sounds trite to suggest, but a shift in perception can be helpful,” Sedlar says.
One easy, quick and practical way to let your inner optimist shine is to actually write down what you’re grateful for. Each night before bed, write down three things that went well during the day or that made you happy, and why—they don’t have to be profound. Just writing about that cute dog you met at the coffee shop or a fun text exchange with a friend can be enough to help you focus more on the good things in life, however big or small they may be.
Focus on friendships
As funny as those Instagram cartoons about embracing your inner hermit are, isolating yourself from others usually isn’t the best strategy. Spending time with friends is important for your overall health and to prevent loneliness—we’re all social beings, after all, even if your idea of socializing is less going to a nightclub and more meeting a friend for coffee (we understand you, introverts). If you’re feeling distant from others, try reconnecting with friends you haven’t seen in a while, or joining a group activity (book club, anyone?) that will help you meet other people who share your interests. And remember that quality, not quantity, is what counts. Even if you have only one or two close friends, that’s enough if those relationships are meaningful to you.
Be kind to yourself
If you’re hard on yourself, you definitely aren’t the only one. A recent study from the American Psychological Association showed that perfectionism is increasing, particularly among millennials. Practicing self-compassion can help push out those negative, judgmental thoughts that pop into your head unbidden. Instead of getting down on yourself for being single, or not going to the gym three times a week, or accidentally overwatering that house plant (RIP Haworthia fasciata), try instead to accept things in life that aren’t going your way and any uncomfortable feelings that go along with that.
Recognize that even if you’re alone, you aren’t
It’s easy to think you’re the only discontented single person in the world, especially if most of your friends are partnered, married or (yikes) have kids. But people don’t tend to share their deep, dark fears and insecurities with others unless they trust the person or have known them a long time. Which means there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way you do but haven’t said anything about it because, ew, feelings. And that’s comforting.
Do what you enjoy—and not because you think you’ll meet someone
Activities that bring you joy and that you’re good at will make you feel better and help you focus on the experience in that moment. Don’t do something just because there’s a chance you could maybe, possibly meet your future soulmate.
“If that’s your only desired outcome and it doesn’t happen, you’re left feeling disappointed—and you’re missing out on enjoyment you could be having even if you’re not with somebody,” Sedlar says.
Face the uncomfortable
Challenge yourself to do something—a trip, a sport or a new exercise regime—that is outside your comfort zone. Proving to yourself that you can do something that’s a little intimidating or scary at first will help you be more comfortable with doing things by yourself, and help you realize that you can handle situations—and even enjoy them—without needing to rely on another person. Bonus: You may even learn something about yourself in the process.
Revel in your singleness
Single people have a lot of freedom that marrieds or those otherwise spoken for don’t. You don’t have to constantly check in with someone else or coordinate schedules.
Plus, being single is likely better than being in a relationship you aren’t invested in, Sedlar says. Why pressure yourself to be coupled just for the sake of being in a relationship? After all, you’re holding out for your 1 in 5 billion.