We live in an age of hyper-connectedness and constant noise. But life’s most important breakthroughs often occur during periods of solitude. Read on for why it’s important to find time for solitude.
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
Lessons from history
One of the greatest crises of our time, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our society as it continues to profoundly impact countless lives. But, if history is any indication, catastrophes tend to bring about lasting social changes.
When the bubonic plague of the 14th century that left almost 200 million people dead ended, it marked the beginning of a movement we’re grateful for to this day. The Renaissance. The plague, also known as the Black Death, completely decimated cities and towns, killing entire populations in some cases. When the pandemic ended, those who were left behind were forced to rebuild their lives completely through creative use of resources and skills. And thus, was born an entire generation of star architects and poets, and path-breaking scientists, and explorers such as DaVinci, Shakespeare, Galileo and Columbus.
Dealing with isolation
Now, whether the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic will be an intellectual awakening or a cultural metamorphosis remains to be seen, not the least because we can’t even seem to agree on whether the pandemic was real. But one consequential, but less-publicized fallout of the pandemic has been the unraveling of our personalities and personal preferences, especially as it relates to our social lives.
Within a few days of the first Covid-lockdown, the fissures started to emerge: The people of this world, it seemed, could be broken down into two camps: Those who accepted social isolation, and those who struggled with the concept of being alone. If you didn’t already know, it’s probably clear which category you fit into.
Personally, I always had an inkling that I favored solitude. My hobbies—reading, running, writing, and cooking—none of which require the presence of another human being, should have clued me in. But now I am doubly sure about where I belong: a proud, card-carrying member of the “I’m happy to be alone” camp and that’s why, if the title of this article isn’t already a dead giveaway, I’m here to make the case for solitude.
The joy of solitude
During the initial days of the lockdown when the stay-at-home orders came through, I wasn’t just okay with needing to be secluded. I embraced it. Wholly. Without reservations.
Dare I say it was freeing to finally not have to go to work or social engagements, or wear makeup and dress up and say polite things and be politically correct, or engage in idle water cooler chitchat and pretend to be interested in a coworker’s animated reminiscence of the weekend football game. And as I entrenched myself in the process, I learned a thing or two about the practice and benefits of solitude.
The first thing being the difference between solitude and loneliness.
Solitude is not loneliness
Solitude is the situation of being alone. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the feeling of not belonging.
You could be in a room full of people and yet feel lonely because of a lack of social or emotional connection to the others in the same space. Solitude, on the other hand, can be freeing, almost like a friendly feeling of lightness.
Loneliness can be a problem, but solitude is not, because solitude typically results from a conscious choice. In solitude, you are alone because you choose to be alone.
If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company. Jean-Paul Sartre
But why choose to be alone when the world is full of friendly faces?
Why bother with solitude?
There are many benefits to solitude, but here are three key ones.
Allows us to be self-aware
Experience by itself isn’t a great teacher. It is our ability to reflect upon our experiences that can teach us something.
Just like how we turn the radio down to answer a phone call, we need solitude to tune out the surrounding noise, to reflect on what our minds and hearts have to say.
Solitude allows us the time and space for introspection which, by the way, according to organizational psychologist and author of Tasha Eurich, can be harmful if not done right. In her book, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, Eurich discusses how introspection, if done incorrectly, can cause rumination and make us feel worse in the process. Which explains why so many people are afraid of solitude.
A study found that we prefer electric shocks to being alone because we’re afraid of confronting our demons. But the solution isn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Filling our lives with meaningless chatter and avoiding solitude is unhelpful at best. Instead, we’re better served when we learn to introspect the right way. In solitude.
Creativity sparks when you are on your own
Solitude gives us our brains the necessary space and time to form neural connections. Anecdotally, we’ve heard of creative sparks when people spend time by themselves.
Shakespeare is credited with producing many masterpieces during the bubonic plague because he was forced to quarantine.
Picasso famously said,
Without great solitude, no serious work can be accomplished.
Solitude helps avoid groupthink
To be constantly surrounded by company also means you will be constantly influenced by others’ thoughts and opinions. It is hard to know where you stand on an issue if you don’t have the bandwidth to think and reflect on how you feel about the said issue.
In a lecture delivered to the graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point in October 2009, thought leader and author William Deresiewicz made the connection between solitude and leadership, saying, “If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.”
Solitude, in short, is key to thinking.
The best thinking has been done in solitude. The worst has been done in turmoil. Thomas A. Edison.
I live in that solitude, which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity. Albert Einstein.
We come into this world alone and we leave alone. Yet, we are so afraid of being alone with our thoughts. We rush to turn on the radio to fill the silence during our drive, or often say outright stupid stuff just because we find the awkward pauses in a conversation unbearable.
Solitude has a bad rap. Just try telling your friends or family, “I’d like to be left alone,” and consider yourself lucky if it doesn’t result in an intervention or a therapy-referral.
But it’s healthy to prefer to be in solitude every so often. It does not mean you don’t appreciate those around you—your family, friends, or coworkers. Because, like exercise and diet, a good dose of solitude can fix the kinks in our egos and help us develop self-awareness. Which is the first step to getting wiser.
Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Stay home on New Year’s Eve, if that’s what makes you happy. Skip the committee meeting. Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances. Read. Cook. Run. Write a story. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking