When can you last remember actually spending time alone?
As you rack your brain, you may be surprised that you come up short. And you're not alone. While humans are social beings by nature, we live in a society where we're over-scheduled, leaving very little room for a little QT with ourselves.
For many, the idea of being alone may be an uncomfortable one. Spotting someone enjoying a movie solo or spending Friday night in elicits pity, since we tend to associate solitude with loneliness or isolation. One study published in Science even found that people would rather do mundane activities or — wait for it — administer electric shocks to themselves than be left alone with their thoughts.
“I think most people use distraction and are afraid to be alone and or sit in silence due to fear of unresolved feelings or thoughts that could come up,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner of Serendipitous Psychotherapy in Chicago.
But while we tend to shy away from being alone, experts paint a much different picture of solitude — one that's a very important piece of emotional health.
“Spending time alone is aversive because one, solitude is misconstrued as loneliness, and two, people are ill-equipped to know what to do with themselves,” says Arnie Kozak, PhD, a psychotherapist and clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. “Valuing aloneness, solitude and quiet is not what most people see as a priority. As a culture, we extol American self-sufficiency but we really don’t want to be alone with ourselves. We are obsessed with self-esteem but seem to have little interest getting to know this person in any sort of deep experiential way (which would happen if they spent time happily and comfortably in solitude). Before the Internet and social media, we had more opportunities to be alone but now, with connectivity, you don’t ever have to be alone and many people live their lives this way.”
While we may not spend time alone as often as we should, it does seem that people recognize the importance. As a part of The Rest Test, a survey of 18,000 people from 134 countries, people were given a long list of activities and asked to rank them in terms of being most restful. Surprisingly, “spending time alone” came out in the top five (falling third to only “reading” and “being in nature.”)
If cultivating a relationship with ourselves is not worthwhile, what other relationships would be?
"People said that when they were on their own mostly they were focused on how they were feeling, so on their body or their emotions," Ben Alderson-Day, a psychologist from the University of Durham, who co-wrote the survey, told the BBC. "There is a hint that when you're on your own, as well as switching off from other people, you get the chance to switch off from your own inner monologue as well."
In fact, a significant number of the top ten most restful activities chosen by participants are often carried out alone, including listening to music, daydreaming, taking a bath and meditating.
Beyond being restful, there are some impressive mental and physical benefits that make a pretty convincing argument for prioritizing alone time.
The Benefits of Spending Time Solo
“If cultivating a relationship with ourselves is not worthwhile, what other relationships would be?” asks Kozak. “While we are social creatures, our relationship to self is foundational to all other relationships, including that with the natural world, and a solid relationship to self is grounded in solitude — the capacity to be alone.”
Developing this capacity has some promising side effects, including “increased self and social awareness, clarity, problem solving, empathy for self and others, peace, calm and safety,” says Kitley.
Taking some much-needed time alone can benefit both your personal and professional life. Some of the immediate side effects include:
A Boost in Creativity
We tend to see brainstorming as a group activity, but science shows people are better working through complex problems when they work alone.
“When you’re working in a group, it’s hard to know what you truly think. We’re such social animals that we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it,” Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts” and co-founder of Quit Revolution, told Scientific American. “And when we do disagree consciously, we pay a psychic price. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the ‘pain of independence.’"
Research conducted by Reed Larson, and published in Child Development, supported this theory, finding that adolescents report feeling less self-conscious when they’re alone — obviously a state of mind that’s more conducive to creativity.
Not only are we free from societal pressure that can stop our creative juices from flowing, but solitude also allows us the reflection time to work through problems. “Life's creative solutions require alone time. Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems,” Ester Buchholz, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, wrote in her book, The Call of Solitude. “Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
Which makes sense: how many times have you had that “A-ha!” moment — reaching the solution for a particular dilemma — while washing the dishes, walking the dog or taking a shower?
Research shows that solitude is an important time for humans to center themselves, which then facilitates more genuine connections with others.
Lower Stress and Depression
“Solitude is an essential way to replenish our energy, critical for introverts and valuable for everyone else,” says Kozak. “Without such solitude, we are bound to be more stressed by the unrelenting busyness of life, the massive amounts of information we wade through every day, and the energetic demands of being around other people. To enjoy time alone is to know ourselves better and feel less pushed around by the expectations of others and the culture we live in.”
Larson’s research also revealed that depressed teens felt significant relief in their depressive symptoms after time spent alone. The key word being after, since the teens characterized solitude as “not a particularly happy state.” Good to know for those of us who struggle being alone with our own thoughts, fighting the urge to grab our cell phone or switch on the TV.
It may seem counter-intuitive that time spent by your lonesome can benefit your relationship with others — but it’s true. While conducting research at a device-free summer camp, Sherry Turkle — a researcher and founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self — discovered being phoneless made the biggest impression on the teenage boys. “Their embrace of the virtue of disconnection suggests a crucial connection: The capacity for empathic conversation goes hand in hand with the capacity for solitude,” she wrote.
The support for this theory isn’t just anecdotal. A 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp reached the same conclusion: After five days without phones or tablets, the campers were able to read facial emotions (in real life and of actors on videotape) significantly better than a control group. And scientific research also shows that solitude is an important time for humans to “center” themselves, which then facilitates more genuine connections with others.
“You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments," writes Turkle in her book, Alone Together. "When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”
Ready to pencil in some much-needed solitude? Here are some activities that will optimize the time spent alone in order to reap the most benefits.