Everything I learned about happiness I learned by being alone. I've felt it while stitting alone and eavesdropping on the stark contrast of two different first dates, one between 20-somethings and another between 50-somethings, at a cafe up North. I discovered it while eating alone at a tapas bar in Spain where everyone was obsessed with Ricky Rubio. At a mismatched coffee shop in Minneapolis. At a soup restaurant in Guatemala. At the base of a volcano while taking heavy steps on what I imagined was Mars. These moments — moments of pure aloneness and awareness — are outlined for me in deep, bold lines, preserving themselves forever in fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark ink.
If you're afraid of going out alone, you're not alone. There's still an unfortunate stigma attached to going out into the big world of human movers by oneself, despite the fact that there's been a huge demographic shift to a more solo society. In fact, 27 percent of U.S. households consist of only one person, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. In Minnesota, "householders living alone" constitute 28 percent of total households, a leap of nearly 30 percent since 1990.
And before you start to think that going out into the spinning world is different than being alone behind four walls and likely a glowing blue computer or phone screen, researchers say it's actually healthy to be alone out in that tree-filled sphere. And it brings us more happiness.
Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, professors from the University of Maryland and Georgetown business schools who co-authored the soon-to-be released study in the Journal of Consumer Research, "Inhibited from Bowling Alone," discovered that people actually underestimate how much they will enjoy time alone. What's more, this cognitive dissonance poses a problem, Ratner tells the Washington Post, since people are working more, marrying later, not marrying at all (more than 50 percent of Americans are now "single," the largest percentage yet), and making less free time to enjoy the things that people need to feel alive. Why rush home to eat that Chipotle burrito alone, for example, when we can drip that sour cream on our shirt in front of strangers instead?
That once-common practice of eating at home alone has started to shift over the last five years, even if people are still uncomfortable in their solo-dining skin — or sour-cream-stained shirts. According to a report earlier this month from the consumer trend agency the NPD group, "solo dining" is just one of the top trends facing the food and dining industries. Over 50 percent of "eating and beverage occasions" happen when diners are alone, according the NPD.
The Twin Cities offer plenty of ways to take in the world alone, from the lakes to the rivers and waterfalls to the parks to the museums to the skyline-shadowed strolls. But dining is a whole other story. Search for easy and fun places to dine alone in Minneapolis, and the results are fairly mixed and not all that unique. The one thing the places do have in common (Burch, 112 Eatery, Eli's, Sonora Grill, Common Roots): a bar, or an option to sit and stare at your computer and not look/feel alone.
Despite the number of single and solo folks here, the Twin Cities are behind other trend-setting cities, where communal and solo dining is welcomed. In Amsterdam, for example, a restaurant called Eenmaal was created solely for the concept of dining alone. Of course, reasturants like this are also some of the best places where you can connect with strangers and stories from all over the world. The places where you can outline solo experiecnes in thick, vivid permanent ink.
Solo-living in public isn't for everyone. But research suggests we're a lot happier when we get out from behind our screens and four walls and soak in the world around us. It's not easy for Minnesotans, but we can be trendsetters. We can remove ourselves from ourselves, take ourselves a little less seriously, and experience the world outside ourselves without anything getting in the way of your view. Best of all, we can say we did it all by ourselves.
(Above: Picnic table for one, please)