Throughout history, solitude has been viewed in a negative light with examples including pariahs, hermits and outcasts. In fact, in a 2017 study, many people chose a mild electric shock rather over being left in a room alone with nothing but their thoughts. The main reason for this complete avoidance of alone time is due to mis-representations of what happens mentally when given time to dwell on what’s on our mind. There are two different types of solitude: self-determined solitude and non-self determined solitude, or simply put, willing and unwilling isolation. Unwilling isolation is what springs to mind first, with detention, prison and other punishments causing the negative stigma we are all familiar with. However, recent studies have found that those willing to isolate themselves for periods experience benefits, contrary to the predisposed views we may have.
There are some factors we must acknowledge first. Those forced into solitude do not experience positive effects; the opposite is in fact true. Any feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness are exacerbated and line up with the torture that solitary confinement has come to represent. While there are outliers (such as Nelson Mandela who used the time alone for self-reflection), in a study conducted by UC Santa Cruz it was found that in cases where the person proved unwilling to become detached from others, the person knew in advance the experience would be gruelling.
The demographic in question is also worth noting. Adolescents find it more difficult to take time away from their social circles, whereas adults find the experience beneficial. The obvious reason for this is the constant inclusion offered by social media, and the belief that any time away from social media will hamper their social standing. Unfortunately, this is not as absurd as it sounds, with internet connectivity even being treated like an essential utility, placed alongside water and heating in many housing listings.
There is a long list of the benefits of self determined solitude, with advantages including increased creativity, reduced stress and anxiety, and overall increased productivity
Another relevant factor to account for is introversion and extroversion, and whether solitude applies mainly to the former. Surprisingly, both experience positive effects when willingly withdrawn, with the exception perhaps being that introverts seek longer alone time than their counterparts. This is similar to the representation given to us of those who choose to stay alone. The societal depiction of introverts and extroverts are of two extremes, but this is evidently blown out of proportion. The underlying bias toward extroversion is unfair, as choosing to be alone at certain times does not make one a hermit, it makes them human.
There is a long list of the benefits of self determined solitude, with advantages including increased creativity, reduced stress and anxiety, and overall increased productivity. Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution endorses the belief that it can be beneficial to embrace introversion as well as extroversion, and support the need for time alone as well as with other people. Cain’s model has been endorsed and adopted by businesses and organisations, and her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has become an international bestseller.
One of the biggest misconceptions at hand is that being alone equates to loneliness. Loneliness is a negative emotion and can lead to further negative emotions. Being alone simply means a person is by themselves and does not connote any emotion. They can of course be linked, especially, as mentioned earlier, when solitude is not self-determined. The difference is an important one to distinguish, leading to the misbelief that any time alone is harmful.
The lack of privacy in society is becoming an increasing concern. In a world where data is being harvested as a commodity, so too in the future will privacy. Work is no longer 9-to-5, ending when the employee clocks out; they are readily available at any time and accessible by calls, texts and emails. The human cost of these technological advances must be re-evaluated, as cyberbullying, trolling and online abuse worsen. The lifestyle of constant communication is still growing, and unfortunately seems to determine one’s worth. Of course it isn’t completely negative, but it is a growing concern for psychologists as cases of depression, anxiety and even suicide grow, with the same technology being blamed.
Being alone simply means a person is by themselves and does not connote any emotion
Overall, it is clear that those who make time for solitude are happier than those who ignore it. Of course, the line between effective isolation and plain unsociability can sometimes be blurred and needs to be monitored. It is easy to let the social balance slide, but when using solitude within reason, it has proven to make life more fulfilling. This is not a recent development either, as meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy and grounding all endorse similar beliefs in using solitude for self-care and self-improvement.
We need to remind ourselves to make time for ourselves. Focus needs to be put on self-care before all else, and it must be made clear that being alone when we need to be isn’t a bad thing. It should be a cause for concern when the opposite occurs, and the opportunity for privacy is completely taken away. Loneliness is becoming a paradox, an epidemic at the same time the world is becoming more connected. The idea of solitude should be embraced, not shunned as it will become more valuable if interdependence continues at its current rate.