It’s not a stretch to say that in this current culture, we have a tendency to conflate those who are lonely with those who are alone. Loneliness and aloneness are not mutually exclusive states of being. Just as it’s possible to feel lonely at a party or in a crowd, it is possible to feel a satisfaction from solitude.
We know, we can hear you. “Solitude? Like living alone in the woods? Isn’t that for disenfranchised, cabin-building, nature-fixated weirdos? Like Dick Proenneke? He was a couple banjo plucks short of a folk song!”
It’s easy to poke gentle fun at a naturalist like Proenneke, who most closely embodied the “tree-huggin’ crazy woodsman” archetype we see time and again. But while people like Dick Proenneke, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher Knight seem a little extreme in their methodology, the principle behind their actions was anything but.
We need solitude. In a society that tends more and more towards distraction and noise, solitude is an almost radical act of self-care.
What are the benefits of solitude? We’re glad you asked.
1. Your Brain Needs Silence
In this gilded age, there’s never ‘nothing’ to look at. For many of us, the would-be holes in our day to day lives are filled in every possible way. Long commute? Listen to a podcast. Stuck in line at the hot dog cart? Check Facebook. Jury Duty? Play Bejeweled on your phone. At the gym? Pump your Spotify workout mix. Back in line at the hot dog cart? Open up Twitter. In Bed? Scroll through Instagram. Can’t sleep? Read your Kindle. Waiting in the cool, dewy, nascent pre-dawn for the hot dog cart to open again? Re-download Tinder.
Let’s call all of this stuff what it is, noise. Plain and simple. We seemingly spend every minute of every day blasting noise into our brains, all to distract ourselves. From what, exactly? What do we have left when we take all the noise, chaos and distraction out of the equation? Our thoughts.
Our brains, for whatever reason, are hardwired for self-analysis. Even though statistically we are very bad at judging ourselves, we’re doing it constantly. When silence creeps in, we fixate on past embarrassments, we have imaginary arguments, we remember things that are sometimes painful, or we worry. We ask questions that we don’t have or want the answers to. Is it any wonder that we’re so afraid of being alone that we’d rather be shocked?
The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think, the team reports online today in Science.
The above quote comes courtesy of two researchers from UC who wanted to see how well people would potentially handle being alone with their thoughts. The results were sort of…shocking, to say the least. Pun intended.
The terrible thing about this process of self-reflection is that it is, to some degree, pretty therapeutic. It’s the means by which we untangle the mess of our lives and a totally necessary phenomenon. The more we put off this self-reflection, the more urgent the demand for it becomes.
So how do you stop hiding from your thoughts? Some suggest a ‘quiet hour’ before bed. Maybe that will work for you. Your method could be as involved as a meditation retreat. It could be as simple as sitting in your backyard, totally phoneless, watching the birds and channeling a little Dick Proenneke.
2. Solitude Boosts Creativity
It was J.D. Salinger who said, “Novels grow in the dark.” What did he mean by this?
Firstly, that creativity can flourish even in troubled waters – adversity, emotional turbulence, etc. can all contribute to the manufacture of good ideas, as it were. Secondly, and more importantly, he meant that even when you spend time away from the typewriter, your brain is still working through the knots of your writing. The time you spend away from the story is just as important as the story itself. Same goes for socializing, as it were. It turns out that people who seek solitude are more creative overall.
To tease out how these “unsociable” people are different from the shy or the truly anti-social, Bowker and her colleagues recruited 295 university students and had them complete a battery of common assessments about their personalities, their social lives, and their creativity. The assessments rated the students’ level of agreement with various items including “Having close friends is not as important as many people say” and “I feel pretty worried or upset when I think or know somebody is angry at me”…people who were “unsociable” — those who sought out solitude — scored higher on creativity.
It’s posited that people who seek solitude are also the ones who can properly wield it. They know how to constructively utilize their downtime. It’s one of those things that all but goes without saying. No great writer ever completed their magnum opus at the circus, right?
3. You’ll Develop the Capacity to be Alone
What exactly is the capacity to be alone? It’s a cultivation on your part, it’s a skill you build. We associate aloneness with loneliness, we attach this negative connotation and fail to see the real benefits of spending time on our own. Through solitude, you can cultivate a sense of peace. You can positively reframe your inner monologue, re-examine your relationship with yourself and your past, you can plan for the future. All of these things are so much harder to accomplish with the constant noise we inject into our brains, day in and day out.
Consider those who traipse into the wilderness, unfettered from the noisy bustle. When you read about their experiences – the Thoreaus of the world – you can see their capacity to be alone so clearly illustrated in their words.
Before long, the forest opened up to a bog where green sphagnum moss blanketed everything from decaying tree trunks to rocks. There was no beaten-down path or honking traffic; as far as I could tell, only a moose had traversed these parts recently. This was an awesome moment. I felt incredibly connected to something larger and more intricate than I could ever understand, than any technological invention could provide.
–Monica Patel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wilderness Fellow
If that doesn’t sell you on solitude, we don’t know what will.
And for the record, we’re not saying “throw your cell phone into the ocean and catch catfish barehanded in the Mississippi like a wild person,” but we’re also not not saying it.