Solitude vs. Loneliness

Loneliness is what gnaws at us when connections fail. But solo time is essential, can help us think clearly, breathe calmly, and even feel content.

Solitude, Part 2: The Benefits It Brings, and the Special Strengths of the People Who Enjoy It

Here’s what makes solitude so sweet

Unlike the readers of my last post, who were so articulate and insightful about the sweetness of solitude, many professional researchers have had a much harder time recognizing that solitude can actually be beneficial. Maybe part of the reason is that psychologists - especially social psychologists - are so attuned to humans as social animals who need and crave connection with other people. In fact, the title of a journal article that has attracted much attention over the years is "The need to belong."

I don't dispute the social needs of humans. I just don't see them as incompatible with an appreciation for solitude. To get a sense of psychologists struggling with the notion that time alone can actually be a good thing, consider these two examples of titles of journal articles:

  • "When the need to belong goes wrong"
  • "Finding pleasure in solitary activities: desire for aloneness or disinterest in social contact?"

Titles such as these seem to suggest that if you spend time alone, there must be something wrong with you. Maybe your need to belong has "gone wrong." Maybe you don't really want to be alone, you are just anxious and avoiding other people. But that's not what the studies show. Some people really do want their time alone and regard it as something positive and constructive; they are not skittishly fleeing scary humans.

In a study of fifth through ninth graders, Reed Larson found that over time, the older children choose to spend more time alone. What's more, their emotional experience was improved after they had spent some time on their own. Those adolescents who spent an intermediate amount of time alone - not too much, not too little - seemed to be doing the best psychologically.

The psychologists who really do get it about the sweetness of solitude are the ones I mentioned in my last post - Christopher Long and James Averill. The title of their key theoretical article is "Solitude: An exploration of the benefits of being alone." No apology. No befuddlement that humans might actually benefit from their time alone.

Here's how they characterize solitude:

"The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people - a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one's mental and physical activities."

Many readers made similar observations in the comments they posted to Part 1. Although there can be benefits to spending time with others, there can also be rewards to "disengagement from the immediate demands of other people."

There is research (again by Larson) in which people are beeped at random times during the day and asked about their experiences. Unsurprisingly, people report feeling less self-conscious when they are alone than when they are with others.

Other than the welcome emotional respite, what's so good about feeling less self-conscious? Long and Averill think that it is good for creativity. They note findings from other research showing that adolescents who can't deal with being alone are less likely to develop their creative abilities.

The theme that resonates most with me is the argument that other people can be distracting and taxing. I'm not talking specifically about being with people who are annoying and demanding. Instead, the idea is that just having other people around - even wonderful other people - can sap some of your cognitive and emotional resources. You might, even at some very low level, use up some of your psychological energy wondering about their needs and concerns, or considering the impression you may be making on them (even if you are not insecure about that), or maybe even just sensing their presence when you are sharing the same space and not even conversing.

There is a freedom that comes with solitude, and (as Long and Averill note) it is both a freedom from constraints and a positive freedom to do what you want and let your thoughts wander. Here's another quote from them that I especially appreciate, as it showcases their perspective that spending time alone and getting something out of it can be a strength, rather than a cause for concern:

"the (positive) freedom to engage in a particular activity requires more than simply a freedom from constraint or interference: it also requires the resources or capacity to use solitude constructively."

Antarctic researchers, who have chosen a pursuit that requires spending a lot of time alone, score especially high on a scale measuring "absorption." The scale assesses enjoyment of experiences such as watching clouds in the sky, and becoming particularly absorbed in a movie you are watching.

In solitude, Long and Averill suggest, we sometimes think about ourselves and our priorities in new ways. Our thinking about other matters, too, may be more likely to be transformed during times of solitude.

The particular intersection of solitude and single life - like so many other aspects of solitude - has yet to be studied in any detail. My guess is that people who are single - especially if they are single at heart - like their solitude more than people who crave coupling do. I'll end with one more quote from Long and Averill. They were not discussing single people when they said it, but it strikes me as relevant:

"...cognitive transformation can be threatening rather than liberating. At the very least, in order to benefit from solitude, the individual must be able to draw on inner resources to find meaning in a situation in which external supports are lacking."

References:

Long, C. R., & Averill, J. R. (2003). Solitude: An exploration of the benefits of being alone. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 33, 21-44.

Larson, R. W. (1997). The emergence of solitude as a constructive domain of experience in early adolescence. Child Development, 68, 80-93.