Why Solitude is Good for You

Image: Creative Commons

Article is updated as of January 4, 2022.

The COVID pandemic has forced many people into isolation and restricted social contact with family and friends. And we see daily the articles and reports about the damaging impact of loneliness in society.

At the same time, despite the research on the benefits of solitude, it receives scant attention in popular media and we tend to conflate solitude with loneliness. They are not the same thing.

Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.

Loneliness is frequently described as an epidemic and a public health concern, as if it were a contagion that must be contained. All sorts of claims have been made about the links between loneliness and health problems, such as higher blood pressure, reduced lifespan and lower cognitive ability, hence the frequent analogies with obesity and smoking. Scientists are supposedly even designing a pill to cure loneliness.

For good reasons, then society has developed some negative associations with the idea of being alone.

When kids misbehave, parents send them to their rooms to sit in silence as a punishment for their bad behavior. Staying at home alone on a Friday or Saturday night is frowned upon. You’d be considered a “loser” for doing so and your friends would ask if you’re okay. People feel awkward or judged if they eat alone in restaurants.

We’ve been wired to believe that solitude is our enemy.

We’ve also confused “being alone” with “being lonely”. They are not necessarily the same thing.

Being alone doesn’t necessarily cause loneliness and many people can feel lonely despite being in the constant presence of other people. Author Amy Morin describes it best when she says: “loneliness is about perceiving that no one is there for you. But solitude is about making a choice to be alone with your thoughts.”

The truth is, solitude is necessary for our well-being and potential success.

Although the COVID pandemic may have altered peoples’ lifestyle and work life, they still talk about being overly busy,

They often describe their life with exasperation and yet an odd mix of pride as “crazy”, or “up to my neck in alligators.”

But too much “people time” might also be a bad thing. Our digital devices often make us feel like we need to be connected 24/7. And all of the noise, activity, and hustle can wear you out (and ironically can leave you feeling lonelier than ever).

These same people can be seen during their time off texting, checking their email, checking their smart phone, exercising at the gym, or attending social events when it’s permitted. There’s an expressed discomfort with being alone.

As Paul Tillich once stated: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The real value in solitude is that it is an opportunity for contemplation, self-reflection and self-discovery, or, as Hannah Arendt once put it, a chance to have a “silent dialogue of myself with myself.” For Arendt, solitude was not the same thing as loneliness: “though alone, I am together with somebody (myself) that is.” Being able to be alone and confident in oneself is a prerequisite to being able to socialize with others and connect with a wider community. How can we hold meaningful conversations with others if we can’t do so with ourselves?

Manfred Ket De Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership development and Organizational Change, writing in INSEAD Knowledge argues, “In today’s networked society we are at risk of becoming victims of interaction overload. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts as the temptation to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out that’ is often too great to risk.”

De Vries argues that working harder is not working smarter and in fact, setting aside regular periods of “doing nothing” may be “the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.”

And the current pandemic has shown that not only physical health an issue, but so is mental health.

De Vries contends that “doing nothing” has become unacceptable. People associate it with irresponsibility, and wasting valuable time. It doesn’t provide the stimulation that busyness and distraction-inducing behaviors like constantly checking emails, and scrolling social media sites. Facebookand texting do.

In many ways, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. There’s been a rush to “return to normal” and reopen work and social enterprises, and escape from the forced or voluntary isolation caused by the pandemic.

The biggest danger, De Vries he says, is not so much that we lose connection with each other, but with ourselves.

In our information age, with unlimited opportunities for distraction and activity, being constantly busy is much easier than doing nothing.

And in the workplace, multi-tasking has become the norm, with the mistaken belief that it improves productivity.

The problem is we forgotten how to balance action with reflection; doing with being; oversocilization with solitude. And the result can be psychological burnout.

J. Keith Murnighan, a professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management and author Do Nothing: How To Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, contends that the most successful leaders delegate virtually all the regular work to their staff, freeing their own time so they can facilitate, orchestrate and support everyone else. Murnighan argues “leaders do too much…[and] are seen as micromanagers.”But, he says, “Successful leaders need to do less of what they used to do, even if they were good at it.”

Doing nothing creates all sorts of benefits: a more satisfied work force, a better end-product, lower turnover and more relaxed managers, Murnighan argues. He summarizes with this: “If your teamis successful and see you [the leader] that you are doing nothing, they will not think you as lazy. Instead they will want to know your secret.”

In the scientific journal, Nature, author Kerri Smith reviews the brain research regarding the importance of downtime and doing nothing. Smith says that an a resting “do nothing” state, the brain is not doing nothing. It is completing the unconscious tasks of integrating and process conscious experiences.

According to research by neuroscientists our brains use substantial amounts of energy on each task — as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake.

In a resting state our brain’s neural networks work at processing our experiences, consolidating our memories, focusing our attention and regulating our emotions.

Modern workplaces and work are not organized in such a way as to take advantage of this research, and provide quiet downtime for employees. According to one study, more than 30% of employees eat their lunch at their desks and more than 50% assume they will work on their vacations.

Stephanie Brown, author of Speed: Facing Our Addiction To Fast and Faster — And Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down, argues we are addicted to busyness and accept it as a norm: “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way but it’s the opposite.”

Other studies suggest that not taking downtime and taking time for quiet reflection impairs one’s ability to empathize with others

Finally, researchers have found that resting minds are creative minds. Numerous studies have shown that people tend to develop more novel, inventive and innovative ideas if they allow their minds to wander rather than a narrow focus on one task. More than one great inventor has told the story about how they came up with a brilliant idea when they were doing nothing, rather than being busily involved in their work.

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study in Berlin and found that the amount of time successful musicians spent practicing each day was surprisingly low — a mere 90 minutes per day. In fact, the most successful musicians not only practiced less, but also took more naps throughout the day and indulged in breaks during practice when they grew tired or stressed.

Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute, and Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at the Huffington Post, writes in Harvard Business Review about how solitude helps drive creativity. “Great thinkers and leaders throughout history — from Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak — have lauded the importance of having a metaphorical room of one’s own,” Kaufman and Gregoire write. “But today’s culture overemphasizes the importance of constant social interaction, due in part to social media. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted,” the authors contend.

Christopher R. Long and James R. Averill write in their article,Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone,” published in The Journal for The Theory of Social Behavior, that Solitude, in contrast to loneliness, is often a positive state — one that may be sought rather than avoided.

James R. Averill and Louise Sundararajan, writing in the book Issues of Assessment, Theory and Culture edited by Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker, argue “Solitude — as opposed to social isolation — is a valuable but often underappreciated resource for both individuals and societies. A capacity for authentic solitude entails emotional and cognitive skills that can be facilitated through training. With such skills, solitude can even be experienced vicariously, for example, though art and poetry. In turn, solitude contributes to the advancement of genuine culture, as opposed to the mere adherence to social conventions.”

Chelom E. Leavitt et al., in their article, “The Benefits of Being Alone,” in the book Issues of Assessment, Theory and Culture edited by Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker, argue, “Mindfulness, a space of awareness and attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way, may provide a choice of solitude that encourages individuals to slow down, disrupt habitual and reactive patterns of thought, and notice things from a new perspective. Mindful solitude is not an emptying of the mind, but instead an openness and sensitivity to the nuances of an individual’s emotions and physical responses. Mindful solitude may encourage curiosity, awareness, and less judgment of self and others. For children and adolescents, mindful solitude may provide opportunities to momentarily disconnect from a variety of stressors that are commonly experienced by youth. These benefits of positive mindful solitude may extend to interpersonal and sexual relationships in adulthood, thus having a positive impact on both personal and relational well-being.”

One key benefit of solitude is improved creativity. Gregory Feist, who focuses on the psychology of creativity at California’s San Jose State University, has defined creativity as thinking or activity with two key elements: originality and usefulness. He has found that personality traits commonly associated with creativity are openness (receptiveness to new thoughts and experiences), self-efficacy (confidence), and autonomy (independence) — which may include “a lack of concern for social norms” and “a preference for being alone”. In fact, Feist’s research on both artists and scientists shows that one of the most prominent features of creative folks is their lesser interest in socialising.

A more recent proponent of thoughtful and productive solitude is Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and founder of Quiet Revolution, a company that promotes quiet and introvert-friendly workplaces. “These days, we tend to believe that creativity emerges from a decidedly gregarious process, but in fact it requires sustained attention and deep focus,” she says. “Also, humans are such porous, social beings that when we surround ourselves with others, we automatically take in their opinions and aesthetics. To truly chart our own path or vision, we have to be willing to sequester ourselves, at least for some period of time.”

Creativity is enhanced. Studies have shown that working alone enhances creativity, in many cases, more than working collaboratively with others. Kaufman and Gregoire say that “it is often in solitary reflection that ideas are crystallized and insights formed.” Kaufman and Gregoire contend: “Many of our most original insights arise from the activity of this network, or as we like to call it, the ‘imagination network.’”

Self-awareness improves.

Do you have a high level of self-awareness? Most people do not. Spending time alone in reflection and doing nothing can improve your self-knowledge and self awareness, as described in my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You.

Relationships improve

Do you sometimes get irritated or angry with people? Are you frequently impatient and intolerant of others? Understanding that you cannot change others is an important realization. But you can change your perspective towards others. After some quiet solitude, your can often find the things and people that irritate or anger you is reduced. For example, a study published in the journal Child Development,found that alone time was important for teens. “Adolescents … who spent an intermediate amount of their time alone were better adjusted than those who spent little or a great deal of time alone,” explained the study, authored by emotional development expert Reed W. Larson.

Emotional intelligence improves

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. The company TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that 90% of top performers are high in EQ.

Self-awareness

As psychologist Daniel Goleman, an expert on emotional intelligence has written, self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and you can’t increase your EQ without it. Since self-awareness requires understanding your emotions and how you react to various people and situations, this necessitates careful self-reflection, and self-reflection happens best when you’re alone.

Productivity improves.

Studies have shown that productivity requires us to pay attention and focus on our task at hand. Studies have shown that both mindfulness meditation and alone time reflection aids in our ability to focus our attention, and thereby improve productivity.

Quiet solitude brings back the balance between “doing” and “being.”

Getting stuff one is highly developed in people, particularly in Western culture. Most of us are so accustomed to activity, and believe it is a virtue, that we feel guilty or a failure if we are not busy doing. The Puritanical value of the work ethic is intricately intertwined with busyness. But it wasn’t this way in our past history. In previous times and in other cultures, solitude and being is valued equally. For example, most of the great artists, writers and musicians spent a lot of time alone in the being mode. great musicians and poets were spent significant time alone. In the being mode, we live in the present moment, and are not focused on a future time.

In an ironic way, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to live life differently, to question our slavish devotion to being busy, with others and constantly doing. Research has clearly shown the benefits for slowing down, doing nothing and engaging in quiet solitude. Now is our opportunity to take advantage of it.

Read my latest book: Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others