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Illustration courtesy of: Øivind Hovland

The Virtue of Solitude: Is Being Alone The New Therapy?

How disengagement — according to science — can empower your life.


A lot has been published recently about loneliness and the negative effects of lonely right here on Medium. We’ve seen great perspectives from the likes of: What loneliness does to our body, to How loneliness and technology have defined our current political climate. It seems like, even though we are thriving in one of the most technological eras that our civilization has ever seen, the more hyper-connected we are, the more isolated and socially excluded we’ve become. The social media revolution has not changed these facts.

Loneliness has a painful, complicated nature, since a lot of psychological disorders are interlinked with it. And while a lot of research and efforts are being spent to tackle these widespread societal epidemics, the benefits of meaningful wanted solitude are usually pushed aside or ignored altogether since science has often aligned loners with negative outcomes.

As mammals, humans are indeed social animals. We extract a vast array of benefits from these social experiences that shape the way we behave, flourish, and develop in society. Social contact keeps us grounded and, highly contribute to our happiness and psychological well-being. Yet, an emerging body of research suggests that spending time in solitude — when done appropriately — has its perks.

Certain tasks according to science are better carried out when no one is around, except for ourselves. But, being alone — even when it’s a conscious well-thought decision — is often condemned and criticized. But, what is it about solitude and aloneness that make people uneasy? And, why are solitaires and hermits often stigmatized? Why the mistrust to those who decide to remove themselves for a bit to work on themselves?

Photo by Ihor Malytskyi

As an individual who thoroughly enjoys the benefits of being alone, I often stumble upon these questions. As an avid reader and writer, I thrive in times of solitude. My craft needs it, depends on it, and feeds on it too. For me, there’s no better way to do what I enjoy and love the most than to do it alone in the comfort of my own skin. But, what exactly is solitude?

Well, solitude is the state of being alone but without being lonely. It’s based on the idea that we all need to access to a personal, intimate space to reflect and search inertly for growth, peace, or enjoyment. Throughout history, great thinkers, spiritual leaders, philosophers, and artists have reaped the benefits of solitude. They have used solitude to engage profoundly with their ideas, creations and thoughts. Research shows how solitude undoubtedly brings a great variety of benefits to our lives such as: freedom, creativity, intimacy, and spirituality.

Spiritual leaders like: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha all sought solitude and then returned to share with others what they learned and discovered. Similarly, many writers, such as Dickinson, Thoreau, or Kafka, Woolf (“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table”) have written about the role solitude played in their creative processes.

Still many modern humans are hell-bent on avoiding solitude, there are even people who literally would rather subject themselves to electric shocks than to be left alone with their own thoughts. The main reason solitude is widely misunderstood is that we, as a society, put a premium on relationships and groups, this in addition that often a person wanting to spend time by themselves — in order to do some introspection — is frowned upon. From our early ages, we are taught that we need to make friends, be surrounded by colleagues and that the ultimate price would be to find our better-half. All these values are valid, however rarely kids are taught the rich and spiritual tradition of solitude, instead parents — followed by schools — sometimes use isolation from other people as a form of punishment. Remember, the times you were put in ‘time out’ for behaving badly?

Photo by Kyle Johnson

Solitude in contrast with loneliness helps shape the view of the world and ourselves. As human beings, time to work on and contemplate personal problems and decisions is often needed for our own growth and development, as Jack Fong, professor of sociology at California State Pоlytechnic University explains, “When pеople takе these mоmеnts to explorе their solitudе, not only will thеy bе forcеd to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-manoeuvre some of the tоxicity that surrоunds them in a sоcial setting”.

Simply put, when people extract themselves from the social context that surrounds them, they better understand and see how this social setting shape them. In the words of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author of Thoughts In Solitude, who has spent large periods of time in seclusion and meditation: “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom”. And as, Radu Bogdan says in his book “Minding minds” “our ability to consider our own thoughts arises from our development of the capability to represent the thoughts of others”. From this perspective, the mental experience of solitude is ineluctably and inherently as social as any other psychological experience.

Figuring out what solitude is and how it affects our thoughts and feelings has never been more crucial. According to several polls and census, the amount of people living alone in Europe and in America have increased over the years. It is vital to learn how to live and thrive in solitude especially in this world where we are permanently connected more with the outside world through social media, phones and computers rather than ourselves.

“There are days when solitude is heady wine that intoxicates you, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall” — Collete

Spending time alone is essential to a healthy psyche, according to Ester Buchholz, a psychology professor at New York University and author of “The Call of Solitude”: “It doesn’t matter whether we prefer an afternoon at the library or a weekend in the wilderness; any solo interlude is a valuable opportunity for renewal”.

A lot of folks feel sometimes they don’t want to be tethered to someone or something, this of course frequently gets misunderstood, just because somebody wants to retreat temporarily doesn’t mean that that person is depressed, sad or an introvert. There’s a substantial difference between loneliness and solitude. It’s actually the opposite, by wanting to experience or experiment a quiet moment by yourself, one is taking the opportunity to pay attention and reflect on one’s emotions. To deal with one’s issues. To work on failed projects, to start a spiritual journey.

It’s a healthy exercise of great introspection. An unwind kind of deal for the soul. One that exists in every human degree, as Buchholz says “The need for solitude exists in all people to varying degrees,”. “It’s equal to the need to interact.” The pursuit of seclusion starts in the initial days of life. Studies have shown that babies routinely turn away from their parents not because they want to sleep but because they need to disengage.

Solitude doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to distance yourself forever, but rather, to take time to revitalize your body and clear your mind. To let you focus on what’s important and to shift away from others and to focus on YOU.

“The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind” — Albert Einstein

Though, it’s hard to be alone in a society that is constantly reminding you that by default, one has to be in a relationship or surrounded by people at all times in order to be happy or fulfilled. It is really daunting to think that because one wants to spend some time alone or because one is by default alone then one is instantly an outsider, an underdog, a weirdo.

Sometimes, it’s totally fine to take a step back and run away from people or situations you feel no longer fit you or where your voice is not being heard. Ultimately, isolation cures the soul, the heart-broken and the forgotten. Time to yourself, to let all the bad things out, provides you with new insights, and this only happens if you truly listen to your thoughts and your concerns and recognize the role they play in your life.

Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, writes about a reevaluation of solitude in his book “Alone in America” He says, “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

“Solitude is independence”. — Hermann Hesse

Taking some time off for yourself allows you to clean your act intrinsically. A regular session of temporary solitude, allows you to think deeply. To heal. To breathe. Being alone means that you’re comfortable in your own skin, in your inherent reflections and thoughts. It helps you to get to the roots of who you are, and bond with your place in the world in a calm and unplugged kind of way.

If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed and stressed, then you probably need some time to connect with your inner self. To take a break from the world and reboot. Let’s do it, go and be on your own. Do it now, at this very moment. I bet you won’t regret it. Not even a bit. Solitude is your friend, and it’s here to stay.