I will never forget my churning stomach as I landed in the Indian capital, Delhi, in February 2009.
I had forced myself out of a comfortable existence in Belgium, where I was working as a Sunday Times correspondent. I had great friends and a trendy attic flat that I loved, but I was restless and did not want to spend my entire career in the grey city of Brussels. When a job came up with the paper in India, I nervously applied, and was shocked to get it. I almost decided not to grasp the opportunity because I was afraid to go alone.
Landing in the dusty chaos of Delhi, with nowhere to live, and not knowing a soul in a country of 1.3 billion, I fretted that I had made a mistake. I had stocked up on DVD boxsets in case I couldn’t find friends and was consigned to spend Saturday nights alone. When I stepped off the early morning Air India flight, I had never felt so alone, but also so exhilarated.
Moving halfway around the world on your own is admittedly a drastic step, but often the unwillingness to do things alone prevents us from enjoying some of life’s most fulfilling experiences. Our fear of challenging perceived societal norms to eat, travel, go to the theatre, or live alone, is a subject of fascination for psychologists and researchers, whose studies have thrown up some surprising results.
Inhibited from Bowling Alone, a 2015 study by Rebecca Ratner, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, and Rebecca Hamilton, from Georgetown University, concludes that people constantly underestimate how much they will enjoy activities alone.
They conducted experiments where people were asked about their preference for doing certain activities alone or with others. They were then asked to rate how they enjoyed visiting an art gallery both on their own and in company. The researchers found that interviewees had expected to enjoy the gallery less when alone, but actually had just as good a time. Part of what holds us back from enjoying life in our own company is the fear of what others will think of us.
In 2000, Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University in California, coined the term the ‘spotlight effect’ to describe how we regularly overestimate others’ interest in our affairs and adjust our actions to account for their perspective.
Emma Watkins, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy in London, who loves to travel and go to the theatre alone, believes a simple smile is enough to dispel false perceptions.
“A lot of people are scared to do things alone because they worry about what other people might think. The truth is that most people couldn’t care less if they see someone doing something alone, and if they look at you, who cares?” she said.
“Just smile at them with the confidence that’s allowed you to leave the house without someone holding your hand!” she said.
For Watkins, going to the theatre alone offers new opportunities. “It means that you can see something a bit ‘out there’ and not worry that your companion will hate it,” she said.
“And you often end up sitting next to someone interesting and getting chatting before the show or during the interval. I’ve met a pilot and a Broadway producer by doing just that!”
Penny Beere, who runs Live Your Dream Life Coaching in Surrey, helps to build her clients’ confidence to do things on their own.
She believes that society has a double standard when it comes to women doing activities alone.
“I think it’s a belief system. It’s something that us females were taught from very young that we should be either married or with somebody taking care of us,” she said.
Beere encourages people to face their fears head on. “Once you’ve faced those then anything and everything is possible and then you become more confident in yourself,” she said.
One client, who plucked up the courage to go on holiday alone, loved it so much that she went three times, she said. “Because she was on her own, most people spoke to her,” said Beere.
“She had to get out of her comfort zone and communicate with other people because when you’re at home on your own you can cocoon yourself,” she said. “Every time you do something it stretches you.”
Priya Thyagaraj, a communications specialist, who is American, but was born in India, said she first started doing road trips across America to prove a point to an ex-boyfriend.
“He told me I couldn’t do it, My reaction was: really? I doubt that. Let’s find out.”
Thyagaraj began roadtripping on her own, treasuring long distance drives to slow down and think.
“Along the way I’ve discovered wonderful small towns in America and their genuinely warm people, gotten lost more times than I care to imagine and found a valuable part of myself,” she said.
But despite her boldness in travelling, she admits that eating alone has still been a challenge.
“Let’s be honest, I’ve taken books to dinner and sometimes eaten in my hotel room. All to avoid having people look at me with expressions that say ‘oh, that poor thing all by herself’,” she said.
“I’ve learned to be comfortable eating alone, but it was an acquired comfort.”
Research suggests that the stigma of dining alone is rapidly declining. A survey last year by online reservation service OpenTable.com, revealed that requests for a “table for one” had risen across America by 62% in just two years.
Priti Zararia, an Indian travel writer who often finds herself out on the road alone, said there were advantages of eating by yourself.
“You make friends with people on side tables and make friends with the waiter and with the restaurant manager. And they give you one more dish to try,” she said.
Zararia initially began travelling alone when she had two weeks free between jobs and could not find companions to travel to Laos and Cambodia.
She grew to love it and now about 70% of her travel around Asia, Europe, and the Middle East is solo. She enjoys the freedom to choose her own schedule.
“I realised that I do like to go alone because if someone travels with me then they would drag me to do something that I don’t want to do, and waste my time,” she said.
Financially it was also cheaper, added Zararia. “When you travel a lot you do things in a certain way so that your [money] stretches for longer.”
For first time solo travellers, Zararia recommends starting with a capital city, where language is less of a problem, and “you don’t feel lost because there are a lot of travellers around.”
Travel is one of the best ways to challenge your own boundaries, often with life-changing results.
In India, my DVD sets quickly began to gather dust. I realised I had been overly pessimistic about the prospects of meeting new people and having a good social life.
I ended up having six of the most enriching years of my life. I met some of my best friends, explored exciting places I had never dreamed of being able to see, and I finally met my husband.
Everyone has a different comfort zone, but it often pays to take the leap.
Audio: Voice of Laura Howard who is an English actress, best known for her role as Cully Barnaby in the long-running British crime-mystery Police procedural Midsomer Murders.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.