Winter slows us down. The days are short, the nights are long, the cold drives us indoors. We push against this in the weeks leading up to the holidays, but once the New Year has come and gone, the pace of life grinds almost to a halt, and we look ahead to several more such months.
We’re all familiar with this post-holidays pause of life, and I think for most of us it feels like a letdown. The parties have come and gone, the excitement of New Year’s resolutions has passed, and in its place is the boring task of accomplishing what we’ve said we want to accomplish. Combine that annual malaise with the intensified solitude and boredom of pandemic restrictions, and we find ourselves feeling more alone, and more disappointed about being alone, than ever.
Whether you’re actively sad and lonely or simply sick of living in the monotony of winter, here’s a new way to approach it: lean into those feelings. Instead of driving away these negative emotions with frenetic socially-distanced socializing or binging every TV special that the internet has to offer, seize this opportunity to be alone with yourself and to make your life different.
In his column for The Atlantic, “How to Build A Life,” Harvard sociologist Arthur Brooks argues that living with negative emotions is actually an essential component of happiness. This seems counterintuitive: isn’t happiness about the absence of pain? How can you be happy if you acknowledge that you are lonely, that you are sad, or even that you are bored? Brooks acknowledges this complication, but insists that we must first come to know and then be at peace with our negative emotions before we can be really happy. Any other method is avoidant and actually prevents us from ever reaching the kind of happiness we hope for.
Another angle on this question of solitude and presence comes from poet Rainer Maria Rilke who writes in his beautiful Letters to a Young Poet about the importance of being attentive to these “moments of tension”:
We feel [them] as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.
Rather than letting these moments pass, rather than letting the sadness, loneliness, disappointment, boredom simply be absorbed until we are numb to it, Rilke says we must be “solitary and attentive”:
Because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.
In that spirit, here are some suggestions for ways to turn these months of winter into a fruitful time of personal growth, not in spite of loneliness but through it.
01. Keep a gratitude journal.
Every night, write down three things that you are grateful for today. Not only will this force you to reflect on your blessings, but it will also—and equally importantly—force you to reflect on your day. It’s less pressure than a formless journaling session: a discrete task of listing limited items is something you can accomplish. And it will lead you to be more present to your own life. If it starts spilling over into longer free-form journaling, that’s wonderful—let the cup run over! If it never gets there, that’s just fine: the practice in itself develops a keener sense of gratitude. There is a growing body of evidence to support that gratitude fosters a sense of well-being, better sleep, closer relationships, higher self-esteem, increased satisfaction, and decreased materialism. It can also help you combat stress and uncertainty.
02. Read poetry.
Poetry has the power to push us into the present moment and at the same time to push us out of ourselves into transcendence. Learning to sit with the complexities of human life is sometimes painful, and certainly runs at a different pace from twenty-first-century life. It requires that we slow down and be silent, be still. Poetry is made by men and women in modes of contemplation, and it can teach us to do the same, because reading it requires attention and time. If you want to make winter’s solitude fruitful, if you want to know yourself better as a result of this solitude, incorporate a weekly poetry hour into your schedule. Make a cup of tea or pour yourself a tumbler of wine and go somewhere pleasant, if possible alone—if you’re alone, you can read the poetry aloud and truly saturate yourself in it. If you’re willing to brave winter’s chill, try going to a favorite park or trail and enjoy the beauty of language in the beauty of nature.
03. Start your day right.
Here at Verily we’ve written many pieces on this general topic, but it bears repeating here. Reducing your use of social media allows you to escape the vicious cycle of negative comparison, wanderlust, and discontentment which are sometimes bred by looking at the shiny lives of others. This piece from Forbes gives a general summary of the various benefits of limiting social media use. Using social media right when you wake up can contribute to increased stress and anxiety levels. Hijacking of your time and attention, while setting a precedent of distraction for your day all stem from looking at Facebook, Instagram, and even your mail in the first hour of waking. If you’re hoping to get to know yourself better in these lonely winter months, give yourself the first hour of the day free from the interference of social media notifications. Begin the day being present with yourself.
04. Walk aimlessly.
Okay it doesn’t have to be truly purposeless, but go for a walk without a hard goal or timeframe. Let yourself experience the streets and sights you encounter and extend the walk as the spirit moves you. Try to time these walks with particularly lovely times of day: morning walks and sunset walks are my personal favorites. I always find myself borne away by the beauty—it’s hard to head home when you’re being sucked into a beautiful sunset, and some of my most rejuvenating moments have come from giving in to that seductive power. If you find yourself wanting to stop and sit, to write, even to talk out loud to yourself, let it happen. I keep my phone on silent when I walk and try to bring a little notebook in case of moments like these, but it doesn’t always happen so I’m grateful for the Notes app on my phone!
05. Renew an old hobby.
Recently I came to the painful realization that I now practice hardly any of the hobbies I used to love. I don’t play the guitar, I don’t play the piano, I rarely sing. I don’t sew, I rarely garden, I don’t bake. Somehow between work and play I had forgotten about the things that I love, on my own, when I’m alone and without external stimulation. I was so out of the habit of doing these things that it felt like work to start them up again.
Hobbies are really just a modern word for making art, for doing things that are beautiful and good for their own sake rather than for their usefulness. Studies like this one show that creativity is connected with wellbeing in all its forms, which suggests that in addition to being good for its own sake, creativity is also good for you. If you’re like me, try to get to know yourself again: what do you like to do for fun when you’re alone? What makes you feel rejuvenated to make or do? Try the old things, and if they feel good to you now, keep at it. If they feel stale, there are lots of sites that give great ideas for new fun habits to acquire. Here’s a fun guide from the New York Times about the importance of hobbies and how to pick one. If you’re looking for some concrete ideas, try getting started with one of Verily’s hobby guides, like scrapbooking, crochet, or gouache painting.
In these winter months, don’t run from the inevitable alone-ness and loneliness that characterize the season. Instead, use this winter to develop your interior life, to honestly assess your emotions, and to turn this season of hibernation into a time of rediscovery and renewal.