Loneliness or solitude: the case for being alone

“I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”

Audrey Hepburn.

I remember, as a kid, spending hours alone in my bedroom, either reading or building imaginary worlds with toys. Because I have a sister and a brother, these rare moments where I was left alone actually felt extremely precious. Today, I still savour and cultivate the time to do whatever I want without company.

But being alone is not always pleasurable. It’s strange to think that we’re more connected than ever, and but also more lonely than ever. Scientists speak of a “loneliness epidemic”. The rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States in the last fifty years only.

Loneliness and solitude are not the same thing. Loneliness is the subjective experience in which a person is alone and which produces a feeling of desolation. Loneliness is a common human emotion.

When fleeting, it’s perfectly fine to feel lonely. But when it’s a consistent feeling, it can actually be harmful to your health. In fact, a report commissioned by the UK government found that loneliness can be as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In contrast, solitude is just the state of being alone. The concept of solitude doesn’t have any negative feelings attached to it. Which is why it can actually be enjoyable, or just neutral.

There is a wonderful poem by Robert Duncan called “Childhood’s Retreat” which perfectly captures the beauty of solitude:

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree
out of blue sky the wind
sings loudest surrounding me.
 
And solitude, a wild solitude is revealed,
fearfully, high I’d climb
into the shaking uncertainties,
 
part out of longing, part daring myself,
part to see that
widening of the world,
 
part to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back
 
—the barking of a dog, autumnal burnings,
far calls, close calls—the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am “Look!
 
I’ve been where you
most fear to be.”
Solitude or loneliness

The science-based benefits of solitude

It’s hard to consider inserting a little solitude in our busy schedule. We’re pretty busy and we feel like we need to stay productive. But spending time alone is not a waste of time. Actually, the busier you are, the more likely you are to benefit from some quiet time. And research shows that solitude has lots of benefits.

  • Increased productivity: first things first, and this may be the most counter-intuitive benefit of them all, but spending time alone makes you more productive, research found. When you think about it, many people work better when on their own compared to when working in a busy and noisy office.
  • More meaningful relationships: this one may also seem paradoxical, but it’s fascinating. Basically, science shows that by being able to feel comfortable on our own helps us become more comfortable when around others.
  • Better mental strength: studies show that your ability to tolerate alone time is linked to increased happiness, better stress management, and improved life satisfaction. Basically, spending time alone makes you happier and less anxious.
  • More creativity: according to research, being in a private, secluded space, allows you to be more creative. that’s why artists, authors, and musicians seek solitude when they want to create something new.
  • Self-transformation: by spending time alone and taking a moment for self-reflection—to think about our goals, our concerns, and our self—we are able to define and confirm our identities with less influence from other people, researchers found.

In the end, it all boils down to being intentional in the way we approach solitude. Loneliness is time alone that we didn’t choose, and therefore don’t appreciate. Solitude can be a mindful activity, if you decided to dedicate time to it.

Solitude or loneliness

On seeking solitude

If you think you don’t have time to dedicate to mindful solitude, you probably need alone time more than ever. The good news is that you don’t need to set aside huge chunks of time to be by yourself in order to benefit from solitude. Just ten to twenty minutes of alone time a day could be enough to help you recharge.

To go from simply being alone to creating space for mindful solitude, make sure to put your phone and laptop away. You won’t get any of the benefits of solitude if you spend your time scrolling on a screen. Here are a few suggestions of things you could do in your alone time.

  1. Go for a walk
  2. Meditate
  3. Journal
  4. Listen to music
  5. Read a book
  6. Try gardening
  7. Work on a DIY project
  8. Dance in front of the mirror
  9. Stretch
  10. Practice an instrument

… or you could, you know, do nothing. Just think, or let your mind wander, which is actually also great or your brain. If you’re not used to solitude, silence can feel uncomfortable at first. But allowing yourself to be alone with your thoughts is powerful, and can be a great addition to your mental gym routine. So set aside a bit of alone time and make it part of your daily routine.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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