Can you recall the last time you were alone with your thoughts, without music, podcasts, friends, social media or family to distract you? Or does the thought of being stuck with your thoughts terrify you?
A recent story in the Atlantic examined solitude and found choosing to be alone can boost health, if it happens in the right context.
“Solitude can be restorative,” Brent Crane wrote. “Yet, because the study of solitude as a positive force is new, it’s hard to speak in precise scientific terms about it: We don’t know what the ideal amount is, for instance, or even if there is one. Most likely, such measures are different for everybody.”
Craving solitude isn’t new, though finding it has become increasingly difficult in today's world.
Throughout history, people sought alone time for religious or personal reasons, said Christine Whelan, clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“It was separation from community, for a period of time, as a way to prepare for an emotionally significant event,” she said. “To be alone with your thoughts, to think about what matters to you, to get rid of the background noise.”
But solitude can also bolster creation.
“Anyone who has done something worthwhile has spent time alone. Creative work and introspection and deep thoughts tend to come when we allow ourselves space and that tends to happen when we are alone,” she said.
Sarah Pedersen studies mindfulness and meditation, both of which include some form of solitude. Research shows that these practices positively impact how people grapple with chemotherapy and pain, for example, while also boosting mental health.
“Mindfulness has been shown to predict decreases in anxiety, depression and stress,” said the assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
While some chose solitude for creation or to live in the moment, introverts prefer alone time because it’s simply how their brains are wired.
“Extreme introverts like to be alone and it is very stressful for them to be in social situations. Being alone can be adaptive as long as it doesn’t feel like loneliness,” said Barry Smith, professor emeritus and director of the Laboratories of Human Psychophysiology at the University of Maryland.
Reading a book or knitting alone appeals to introverts because their brains are overactive. Quiet and calm keeps them from feeling overwhelmed. But solitude does not mean isolation. Introverts still have friends and family they can rely on if needed. They just choose more alone time.
Choosing makes the difference
Choice seems to be the defining difference between solitude and loneliness.
“Solitude is being alone by choice for introspection whereas loneliness is feeling socially isolated and alone when you don’t want to be,” Whelan said.
Scott Bea — a clinical psychologist at the Center of Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic — said that research from John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist studying loneliness, showed that people are lonely when they experience low social opportunity, low social skills and view social interactions negatively.
And, when people experience this chronic loneliness, it leads to physical and mental health ailments.
“When people are forced to be alone or when it is not a choice, they can experience it as punishment,” said Bea. “There is a stress involved in that.”
Feeling lonely can impact your health
A recent study found that people who felt lonely report experiencing worse symptoms when they are sick. It’s possible that the stress of feeling alone makes it harder for people to battle the bug. What’s more, people didn’t need to have huge social networks to experience the benefits of friendship; they simply needed a few strong relationships.
These findings reinforce what experts know about loneliness’ impact on health. Past research has shown that being lonely increases someone’s chance of dying, being physically ill or experiencing mental illness.
Even though solitude is a conscious choice that might have revitalizing benefits, people shy away from it because solitude feels scary.
“Sometimes we don’t want to be present because our present moment is sad. It is easier to text with someone than sitting there and experiencing it,” Pedersen said. “But we end up cutting ourselves off from life.”
The experts note that being connected to technology all the time doesn’t make people feel less lonely. Studies find that people who use Facebook a lot feel lonely frequently, which translates to other negative health impacts.
“We are training our brains to tolerate being alone a little bit less,” said Bea.
Try solitude for 5 minutes at a time
Pedersen believes that people can choose solitude in their increasingly busy lives. When she recommends meditation for patients, she starts with two-minute increments or encourages people to be more mindful with one task, such as brushing their teeth. She suggests people try five minutes of solitude to start.
“Sometimes people think of solitude and being alone as ‘I went on this extreme retreat for a month,’” she said.
But it can be easier to find solitude.
“Are there down times where you unplug, literally? Where you are not on your phone, you are not on your computer, where you are sitting and being?”