Last week I was reminded of this Boston Globe article about the power of loneliness and solitude. While the article itself is several years old, and the research in turn even older, it still rings timely and true. In fact, it might be even more pertinent given how much more connected to society we are through our increasingly advanced technology and smart devices than we were in 2011.
These cold and dark days seem to inspire a lot of alone time, don’t they? On Tuesday I spent my entire day alone. I never once left the apartment. I ran into a neighbor in the laundry room and chatted briefly, but that was it–and I was in my pajamas. The snow and frigid temperatures made going into town, even for milk or other simple groceries, feel unnecessary. It’s so much easier to find ourselves alone during January and February and even into March, especially considering how many people work from home. Studies and research show that alone time, extended and, most importantly, wanted stretches of solitude can be very healthy:
“Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.”
Influential thinkers and deities aside, solitude can be just as good for laymen. The article references a study about “social loafing” (the idea that people don’t work as hard on a task if they know others around them can pick up the slack) and the differences of recall when an activity was performed either in a group or solo. The results of the study indicate that we remember a task or incident better when we’ve experienced it alone. The graduate student who led the study, Bethany Burum, compares her findings to going to the movies alone:
“Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it…Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen.”
As someone who craves alone time I found this delightfully refreshing and validating. I’ve been to the movies by myself and it’s wonderful. I’ve traveled alone and it can be great too: you can see what you want to see, stop when you want, eat where you like, etc. You’re in control!
But the article also reminds us that we’re never truly alone. The writer explains:
“the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.”
These days this is an obvious point, but I found it jarring nonetheless. This so-called “social snacking”, the texting, emailing, quick FaceTiming, can cause a lot of confusion about what solitude is. Solitude isn’t being alone with the option of constantly reaching out to someone, it’s a concentrated effort at becoming in tune with your inner brain chatter. It’s not looking to see if someone in your contacts list has something better to say than your own mind. It’s getting comfortable with social silence.
Easier said than done! As always, right? So how do we cultivate a sacred solitude? And when do we do it? In the morning, when we haven’t been tainted by the demands of the day? Or in the evening when we know our to-do list has been tackled to the best of our ability? In the middle of the day when you just need a break from it all? It seems a rather personal decision, one that can actually be quite mutable if you really listen to your needs.
I’m curious: how do you like to spend your alone time? Reading? Running? Knitting? Cooking? Or, do you not like alone time? It can be tricky to distinguish being alone and feeling lonely. What are your thoughts?