After years of suffering from debilitating loneliness, I finally came to the realization that the source of my unhappiness was internal. Being alone, and being lonely are not synonymous. By focusing on myself and my passions, I was able to leave idealized definitions of happiness behind, and find joy in myself.

I’m the type of person who spends my lunch breaks on a park bench with a good book for company, who talks to myself on the delay commute, and who is more comfortable chatting with local baristas than to coworkers I’ve known for years. I spend the majority of my time alone, either in my cubicle or my bedroom, and I spend the majority of my time unabashedly content. I am alone, and I am happy.

It hasn’t always been this way. In college, I lived in a large townhouse with my closest friends. I spent my weekdays in the bustling library, and my weekends at the busiest bars. I spoke up in class discussions, took a leading role in an English honor society, and had the opportunity to work on campus. Despite the constant social activity, I still managed to find college a lost and lonely place. It wasn’t uncommon for me to feel totally alone while in the middle of a crowded room. Ironically, I often escaped these feelings of discontent by going for long walks—alone. I was most content when I took the time to focus on myself. Sometimes the best therapy is just to walk slowly and look at how tree branches are silhouetted against a blue sky.

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For years, I thought the source of my loneliness was my lack of true and lasting relationships, and my inability to form meaningful bonds with other people. I believed this even though I had infallible family ties, a trusty circle of friends, and a decent rotation of romantic interests. But in retrospect, I can see that my sadness was not a result of my surroundings, it was the result of my unrealistic expectations. Every time I made a new friend, or spent time with existing ones, I wanted more from them. I wanted to laugh more, to smile more, to live my entire life in the bliss we see depicted on televised youth drama, on the Instagram accounts of our peers, and on the smiles of those around us. I found myself trying so hard to be happy, that I forgot how to actually be it.

I graduated from college a semester early, and instead of cruising off to a new city and a sparkly career with benefits, I moved back home and continued the corporate internship I held through college. I was faced with the loneliness of familiarity. Everything in my rural hometown was just as I had left it, except most of my peers had moved on to new jobs in big cities. I spent about 10 hours a day in a car or a cubicle, and the four remaining waking hours indulging in social media and cheap television. My social exposure was typically limited to dinner with my family, small talk with coworkers, and the occasional visit with a displaced friend from high school. My first few months following college were filled with nostalgic poems and lonely thoughts. I was obsessed with the five o’clock hour because it was a signal of freedom, but also the dreariest hour of the day. It was amazing how the setting sun could inflict so much sadness.

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Then something happened. I stopped focusing on my environment. I stopped focusing on my situation. I stopped focusing on the behavior of those around me. Instead, I focused on myself. I looked internally to find what makes me happy. What I found was that critical reading and a disciplined writing schedule gave my life purpose. I joined a writers group, I applied for a position with GenTwenty, I sought out poetry readings and literary events. Just a week ago, I went on my first backpacking trip, and I’m hooked to the thrill of carrying my life on my back.

Overcoming loneliness has been a long process for me. I’m aware that my bouts of extreme sadness are the result of a much larger issue I’ve been dealing with for years, but I’ve learned that happiness, in many ways, is a choice. Trusting your own passions, and spending time alone are both crucial. I’ve started indulging myself, aiming for my goals, and doing the things that bring me joy. I always thought that living for yourself was selfish, but it’s one of the best things you can do. By embracing the things that make me happy, I am a more positive person, which improves my relationships with those closest to me.

In fact, staying in tune with my goals, creating a bucket list, and engaging in my passions has allowed me to become more comfortable with myself, and more comfortable interacting with others. As a result, I am more social, more content, and overall happier. I still prefer to spend my lunch hour alone, and often prefer to spend my evenings with a poem than with a friend (and I might argue that poems can be friends too!), but becoming more social has drastically improved the quality of my life.

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Loneliness is a natural part of life, but it can become a serious issue for some and cause a number of health-related issues and decrease the value of life. There’s no “one size fits all” cure for chronic or extreme loneliness, but I found that nourishing my passions was crucial for living a happier, healthier life.

In an article on conquering loneliness, Alyson Krueger recommends, “So next time you find yourself feeling sad and isolated start working on something – any project that makes you excited. You don’t know where it will lead, and how it will help you connect with the world around you. And that is the key to not being lonely.”

Instead of fixating on how to change the world around you, begin by focusing on yourself and your needs. What makes you happy? What makes you feel centered? The moment I stopped looking for happiness in crowded bars and instead found it in myself, I took a crucial step forward and into a more joyous life.