Sunday Scaries

Psychologists explain how to spend Thanksgiving alone — and enjoy it

Being alone is very different from being lonely.

Fox actress Lillian Harvey carves the turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner, Hollywood, California, early...
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended Americans celebrate Thanksgiving “at home with the people you live with.” In the past week, 1 million new Covid-19 cases have been reported across the country. Thanksgiving — with its finger-licking good food, extended family, and unfortunate temperatures — is not a holiday very compatible with coronavirus prevention measures.

But if you are part of the estimated 36 million Americans who live alone, where does this leave you? Can you actually spend a family-friendly day by yourself — and better yet, enjoy it?

According to researchers, the answer is yes, you can enjoy it. But it depends on the way that you view your circumstance and how you decide to spend your time.

“There is a strong correlation between choosing to be alone and being happy with your alone time,” Virginia Thomas, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, tells me. Her research examines solitude, its relationship to identity, and how it differs from loneliness.

“This year, because of Covid-19, many people are forced to be alone — or only with members of their household — for Thanksgiving, and feeling like you have no choice in the matter can ‘contaminate’ the experience,” Thomas says. “It can feel like Thanksgiving is ‘ruined.’ But if we use our tools of reframing, then we can be more intentional and mindful about how we view the situation, and how we then experience the holiday.”

She offers this: We can, for example, view not to choose Thanksgiving as something that is being taken away. Instead, we can reclaim the holidays as “an opportunity to go inward, to focus deeply on what we are grateful for, to take time for self-care, or spend alone time doing something for someone else.”

Reframing the situation — Thomas’ take is reflected in the work of Thuy-vy Nguyen, an assistant professor of social quantitative psychology at Durham University. She also studies solitude and found in 2017 that solitude can lead to relaxation and stress reduction if people choose to be alone. Solitude, Nguyen and her team found, can at times be useful — if people willingly choose to spend time alone.

"There is a strong correlation between choosing to be alone and being happy with your alone time."

Choosing, however, can be more complicated than it might seem. If someone feels like they have no other choice than to be alone, and that’s why they make the choice to continue down that path, then it’s less likely to be a positive experience. And while we can thrive in solitude if we feel able to practice our autonomy and express ourselves, it’s not so easy to figure out what to do with yourself. We can all relate to an experience where we’ve resorted to filling the time with something we don’t actually care about, Nguyen reflects.

“When a person chooses to be alone for Thanksgiving, it is important to reflect on what ways time alone might be valuable and beneficial, and in what ways you can make it more valuable and beneficial,” Nguyen tells me. “Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to spend time alone, so it’s good to be open to different possibilities, have some plans for how you spend that time alone, try it out, and see how it goes.”

That said, Nguyen and Thomas do have some recommendations. Nguyen says her data indicates that it’s good to be engaged with enjoyable hobbies. It’s important that these hobbies are genuinely interesting, Thomas adds, and we can do them without worrying about performance, productivity, or evaluation from others.

Thomas also says research that suggests focusing on what we are grateful for, rather than what we are missing out on, can help us feel less alone — nicely tailored for the holiday at hand. And she notes helping others can help take the focus off ourselves. In action, this could be FaceTiming a grandparent to say hello or virtually volunteering for an organization.

The focus on self is a complicated part of being alone. Nguyen explains that the data isn’t clear on whether spending time alone to think and reflect on things is a positive experience for people. Reflection can bring positive insights, she explains, but it can also lead to worries and rumination.

“If people are going to take time for thinking and self-reflection, it is good to be mindful of where that would lead you,” she says.

Party for one — Solitude, Thomas says, is not generally valued in American society. We don’t have many opportunities to be alone by choice. That is why being alone is stereotyped as a negative experience.

“Over and over again in my interviews with young adults and older adults, I hear them talk about this cultural bias against being alone, because it carries assumptions that someone is unpopular, or lacks social skills, or is ‘weird’ or ‘antisocial’, when in reality solitude is often necessary for us to recharge and reflect,” she says.

These assumptions are likely why Covid-19 lockdowns have been especially difficult for American society, Thomas says. But solitude can bring with it creativity, freedom, and a certain sort of intimacy. It all depends on how you look at it.

For Maggie Green, a journalist, Thanksgiving will be spent going on a hike with her dog Simon, followed by bourbon hot chocolate and “most likely a nap.” She, as recommended by Nguyen, has a plan. Green will complete her solo Thanksgiving with a fancy home-cooked meal — not turkey and cranberry sauce; instead risotto, steak, and Brussels sprouts — a Zoom call with her family, a movie, and “copious amounts” of hard cider and pie.

She calls it “extremely boring,” but is it really? In an over-scheduled society ripe with social expectations, it sounds positively revolutionary. And perhaps that’s what we need most this winter: new traditions, happily made, and a fresh start.

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