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Cognition

Embrace Solitude—for Your Health

You will gain self-reflection, calm, and connectedness with some alone time.

Key points

  • Practicing solitude has a history in Buddhism, with the goal of eliciting self-reflection and self-knowledge.
  • It is necessary to cultivate personal space now more than ever, especially in a modern, fast-paced society.
  • Embracing solitude allows each person to evaluate strengths, eliminate mind chatter, and enhance connectivity.

Solitude. Alone time. Personal space. We need some of this in order to analyse our situation, evaluate things, and ultimately effect change. Practicing solitude started in Eastern traditions well before our time, wherein its purpose was to elicit self-reflection, gain self-knowledge, and seek a better understanding of the world. But it is hard to imagine any decent amount of alone time in a fast-moving digital world replete with information overload, constant notifications, and compulsive social media use.

In my new book, Alone Time. Embracing Solitude for Health and Well-Being (which hits bookstands this month), I share numerous benefits of seeking time alone, and I offer practical tips and mindfulness exercises to help you understand your place in our ever-changing, high-tech world. For now, let me touch the surface of what some solitude can do for you—namely, make you self-aware, promote independent thinking, eliminate mind chatter, and keep you meaningfully connected with others and yourself.

Solitude and Self-Awareness

When you purposefully separate yourself from others, you change the focus from them to you. This switch gives you an opportunity to look carefully within. It is vital to get to know your true self—who you are today and where you want to be tomorrow.

Let me guess—your calendar is full and your mind is weighted down with crucial tasks that should have been done yesterday. You don't have any room for "me time." The faster you get things done this time around, the more actions you will take on next time, and the more automatic thinking becomes. But now is the time to put on the brakes in this breakneck world. In the presence of private space away from the hustle and bustle, you should find it easier to think about goals and dreams and assess whether you are close to achieving them. For example, you may decide to boost social connections, or maybe you plan to work on the relationships you have already. Or, you may desire to drop certain unhealthy behaviours and lead a more meaningful existence. The point is, with more alone time, you will be more self-aware; you can change the path in the life course and become happier and more satisfied.

Solitude and Independent Thinking

It is hard to be an independent thinker when bombarded with news and otherwise menial information presented online. After all, we are living in an era of constant connectivity and public opinion. In the current business world, open workspaces are preferred over individual offices; productive think tanks and non-hierarchical group problem-solving are encouraged in the workplace. Group effort is pushed, even in school. Remember your instructor teaching about the power of collaborative decision-making and the value of teamwork? Being with others, working with others, and learning from others is prized. But that does not mean you can’t do things independently or think in a unique way. Research shows that creative thinking is enhanced when a person spends quiet time to look at the world from their own perspective. Teamwork has its benefits, but sometimes it is good to evaluate your own viewpoint and make decisions for yourself without undue pressure, distractions, or interference.

Solitude Eliminates Mind Chatter

The mind has a habit of replaying recent conversations, particularly unhappy exchanges or scenes, over and over again: the events of a party, discussions in a business meeting, the dialogue you just had with an old friend. Ruminating thoughts swirl and repeat and are rampant at the end of the day. Bedtime is a downtime when your body and mind are turning away outside stimulation to prepare for rest, but, before sleep sets in, all that is left is unhelpful thinking.

Persistent negative thoughts restrict your ability to concentrate and make good decisions. Be aware of when this mind chatter occurs. Understand that you have the power to control your thoughts using mindfulness techniques. Sitting in quiet and observing in a nonjudgmental way will help you eliminate negative thinking. When you are mindful, you become practiced at shifting your mind away from intrusive thoughts and toward pleasant ones.

Solitude Does Not Keep You Disconnected

Source: S. Geldart
Spending sunset at the beach...alone.
Source: S. Geldart

Being alone and being lonely are not one and the same. Giving yourself a chance to stay alone for a short period of time means you have consciously distanced yourself from outside stimulation. It is a deliberate action on your part to stay grounded and let external forces slip away. This can be hard when there is a perpetual need to multi-task and accomplish many jobs simultaneously. But, when you take time to disconnect from the outside world, you can better explore strong feelings, strengths, and areas of need. You can decide what things you want to change, what things cannot change, and how you want your life to be different or better.

Remember, you can feel connected emotionally to other beings even while you are detaching yourself from social events. Feeling connected is a mental representation we hold about ourselves in relation to the world. This mental representation is called a schema by cognitive psychologists. Being connected is having the schema or sense of belonging to a community. Feeling connected with oneself implies self-acceptance and self-love and involves an integration between the mind and bodily sensations. The late Armand DiMele, radio broadcaster, psychotherapist, and founder of the Positive Mind Center in New York, said it like this: “When people go within and connect with themselves, they realize they are connected to the universe and they are connected to all living things.”

Final Thoughts

The last thing anyone needs after a frightfully long and grueling pandemic is more social distancing. Physical distancing reduced the spread of COVID-19, but, given how long we were in quarantine, the effect was that many of us felt bored, unproductive, lonely, and pining for social connection. Humans are social animals, after all, and we depend on each other to survive. What this means is that too much alone time is not good for our mental health. But note that I am asking you to embrace some solitude—for your health. It will help you thrive given today’s landscape. Recognize the difference between forced distancing and voluntary distancing. Distancing ought to be about willingly separating from the social group and taking the time to reflect, self-regulate, and quiet your busy life.

In embracing solitude, do not let alone time put you entirely in front of a computer monitor or scrolling social media on your smartphone. Playing video games and viewing endless newsfeeds are highly compulsive behaviours. A considerable amount of research underscores the grave health effects of steady internet use: social isolation, depression, obesity, and social anxiety. If you or someone you know is glued to their device and persistently leaves behind friends to be online, then being disconnected is surely going to happen. It is necessary to turn off devices on occasion. Put your phone aside—out of arm’s reach when you can—and stay actively engaged in the here and now. Separating yourself from electronic devices is necessary to stay mindful. It is the first step in taking some alone time to reflect on you.

References

Geldart, S. (2024). Alone Time. Embracing Solitude for Health and Well-Being. Summer Hill, Australia: Rockpool Publishing.

Kwak, Y., Kim, H,, & Ahn, J.W. (2022). Impact of Internet usage time on mental health in adolescents: Using the 14th Korea Youth Risk Behavior Web-Based Survey 2018. PLos One 17(3): e0264948.

Long, C. R., & Averill, J. R. (2003). Solitude: An exploration of benefits of being alone. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 33(1), 21–44.

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