Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Mar

The Power of Solitude: Why You Should Spend More Time Alone

I consider myself a pretty social person, but I’ll admit I need my “cave” time – those periodic hours away from everyone and most everything. After a long and compact business trip, a joint vacation with extended family or friends, the ruckus of the holidays, or a week of house guests, I hit my threshold – beyond which I slip into an irritable, irascible version of myself. Usually my wife catches it before I do and gently reminds me to retreat for a time until I’m fit for society again. After a brief self-imposed seclusion (usually a day of hiking), I’m as good as new. In short, a bit of regular solitude keeps me civilized.

Last week The Boston Globe ran a piece called “The Power of Lonely: What We Do Better without Other People Around.” The article mentioned a number of recent studies that underscore the need to go it alone once in a while. Solo time, the article explains, is apparently good for the brain as well as the spirit. New research suggests that we remember information better when we go it alone. Even as subjects sat back to back unable to see one another, the mere suggestion that the other person was performing the same task was enough to diminish recall. The researchers explain that we’re inherently “distracted” and “’multitasking’” in the presence of others – attuned to their responses as well as the task at hand.

Sociologists from New York University and University and Virginia have offered the same conclusion. Their research, detailed in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, showed that students who studied solo had better recall and got better grades than students who did their studying with a group.

The Globe article also cited collaborative research by Christopher Long and the National Forest Service examining the nature and potential benefit of solitude. In contrast to our society’s stigmatization of seclusion, Long’s survey showed that subjects more often than not had a positive view of their alone time. Later, unmentioned research by Long also found an interesting, gender-based pattern in how people seek their solitude. Women in the study showed an inclination toward finding solitude at home, while men sought alone time outdoors.

Research related to adolescents’ experience of solitude offers confirmation that solitude makes an essential contribution to development and mental health. Although the teenagers in the study didn’t describe alone time as a positive experience, the majority reported feeling better afterward. Furthermore, the study showed that “kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression.”

Clearly, social wellness is an integral part of overall health. Studies have demonstrated the supportive effects of close friendships and frequent social contact. We evolved to throw our lot in with others because, frankly, we had a better chance of making it than if we didn’t. The physiological advantages remain today in the way of better immune function, disease survival, motor skill and cognitive preservation, and increased longevity. As with anything, however, social well-being is about balance more than absolutes.

Hunter gatherers’ lifestyle undoubtedly supported the chance for solitude in both daily tasks and leisure time. Living in small bands on large stretches of land offered a chance to get away that many of us in large cities likely crave. With traditions like vision quests, many tribal societies sanctified the power and necessity of solitude. Time away from the tribe is seen as a test of self-sufficiency as well as a time of growth. The individual returns to the group stronger, wiser – with more to offer the group as a result of the seclusion.

Our modern culture couldn’t be more different. These days we’re also impelled by the technological imperative to stay connected. People take laptops on vacation, their smart phones to bed with them. With the constant access to virtual if not actual socialization, experts wonder if we’ve forgotten how to be completely alone, wholly cut off for a time. Can we truly submerge ourselves in solitude when we’re fighting the urge to check email or Facebook “one more time”?

We use alone time to process our relationships and recalibrate our sense of self. Solitude confirms that we’re more than the sum of our reactions to other people and encounters. In solitude, we return to center. I have a friend who for the last twenty years has gone on a solo camping trip for 10 days in the wilderness. The extended seclusion and physical challenge of living off the land gives her chance to clear away the brush of her life, so to speak. She explains, “I have the chance to listen to my own thoughts during those days. I use the time to reflect on the past year – what’s it’s meant for me – and to simply just be.” Solitude reminds us of what is essential to our identities. It inspires deeper deliberation and allows for the perception of more subtle sentiment. It gives us the chance to take inventory and hear the messages that fill our day. In doing so, we can hone in on what is vital to our well-being and what we will take with us to return to the world.

How do you seek out solitude for yourself? What do those hours mean for you? Share your thoughts, and thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I either need more alone time than most other people, or I’m just more aware of it and make an effort to meet those needs, and it’s caused some problems for me with friends and family. (I have a very large extended family, and if I accepted every single invitation to every birthday, baptism, graduation, barbecue etc etc etc I would never have any free time at all!)

    Over the years they’ve come to accept it, and are very understanding, and the pressure to participate has lessened. And actually, once I stopped feeling so pressured to do things all the freaking time…I began to accept more invitations and do more things.

    I think I’ve found a happy medium. But I’m still considered the weird loner. :)

    DeeDee wrote on March 24th, 2011
  2. I’m a very strong Introvert, as measured by every personality test I’ve taken, and time alone is as essential as food for me. My dad, an extreme extrovert, always used to say “why don’t you get out and do something” when I was a kid. He never understood that I WAS doing something. I always had plenty of friends and spent a lot of time with them but I spent more time alone.

    Chris Lampe wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • sounds just like my story! gotta have my time alone or i’ll go nuts!

      Brendan wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Yep me too! When I was a kid, I was always perfectly happy just playing with my dolls by myself. I definitely value my friendships, but I feel so much calmer when I’m not being pulled in several different directions by social obligations…

      Jules wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • I also classify myself as an introvert but have stepped away from it a bit recently and will do so a lot more over the summer.

      Alone time is VERY necessary. My sister used to constantly be with someone and NEVER had alone time. She was constantly stressed out. Today she has a lot more alone time and the stress has subsided.

      We all need to be social but most of us are too social in todays world as Mark stated. We always feel we need to be “connected” to the entire world. That’s great sometimes but being alone from everyone else or just chilling in nature is a fantastic experience.

      Great post!

      Primal Toad wrote on March 24th, 2011
  3. I will have to show my wife this. :)

    Onge wrote on March 24th, 2011
  4. There’s an excellent book by Anneli Rufus entitled The Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto. She addresses the experience that our culture at times tends to place weird labels on people who value their alone time. Additionally, she believes that some people, be it due to genetics or whatever, simply value being loners more than others. This doesn’t mean that they dislike people or that they’re anti-social in any way. They simply value being alone.

    John V. Jones, Jr. wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Great book. Another great supportive read is The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. When I read it, I stopped thinking there was something wrong with me. Introversion is about how you recharge your batteries, not about shyness or social incompetence. Many introverts, such as myself, are highly socially competent! And when it’s time to recharge, and it happens frequently, it is not a social experience!

      Carrie wrote on March 24th, 2011
      • I agree, that is a fantastic book. Love your comments, and I completely agree. I am also an introvert who has to explain to people that I like being alone, that I actually need to be alone to recharge!

        Melanie wrote on March 24th, 2011
        • Malanie,

          Both you and Carrie are absolutely correct. That book made a real difference in my life. I never understood how “normal” I was until I read that book. I’m an introvert’s introvert and always thought something was wrong that I enjoyed so much alone time and neglected most social opportunities. That book showed me how my personality was actually an advantage. Good post.

          Gorm wrote on March 24th, 2011
        • I agree…loved reading Mark’s entry and all of the like-minded (at least the vast majority were) comments! I really appreciate the varied topics that come through this site that support healthy living in a “wholistic” way! Thanks, Mark!

          Carrie wrote on March 25th, 2011
  5. When I’m hunting or just prowling around exploring its like my mind opens up and I think, my muse speaks to me, enjoying the breeze and sun. I feel alive.

    Vance wrote on March 24th, 2011
  6. I live pretty close to a cave existence most of each year. Here at Thule, Greenland my room is about 10×15. We have 11 rooms with single occupants. We share 2 shower stalls and 4 single toilets. Also a small kitchen and gathering area. I am an introverted person by nature and nurture through my life, but can act socially when needed. That is what I really like about being on “Top of the World”. There are at most about 550 people here and at the least about 350-400. So I can join in or escape out at my choice.

    Dave wrote on March 24th, 2011
  7. I totally need my alone time to recharge. If I can’t find a couple hours everyday it really shows in my mood and motivation.

    My extroverted friends and co-workers don’t get it but after spending all week in meetings and on conference calls I often just want to do my own thing on Friday nights.

    Darcy wrote on March 24th, 2011
  8. “I either need more alone time than most other people, or I’m just more aware of it and make an effort to meet those needs,”

    Same for me. As a female I need solo time at home but that only goes so far, I also really need and prefer solo time outdoors. There is something about hiking, fishing, just sitting and listening to nature that helps me work through issues and come to decisions, peace and silencing of the internal dialog that is just not possible surrounded by others and personal things.

    Out there in the wild it’s real, it’s simple, predictable, cut and dried. I feel if I can take care of myself out there then I can deal with anything people/society can dish out.

    I like people but I need my solo time.

    terry wrote on March 24th, 2011
  9. I crave time alone. It’s hard for me to get it. I’m a full-time working single mom in a dating relationship with a guy who lives about fifty minutes away. What that means is that I want to be able to spend as much time with him on the weekends as I can…however…I still long to have some time to myself. I’m lucky if I get a couple of hours of my own on the weekend and a couple of hours alone on Tuesday nights, when my daughter goes to have dinner with her dad.

    I am really craving a day off by myself but I don’t want people to be hurt by not including them in my free time. I think I really need to figure this out.

    Rachel wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Rachel, I totally understand your craving. I’m an extreme introvert that had four children – and homeschooled them. Fortunately, my children are largely introverts with varying degrees of extroversion. I found that I really had to wait until they were all out of the house and off to college to get some awesome alone time – and it was worth it. I still love to spend a day at home by myself.

      My advice? Hang in there, take time for yourself when you can, but don’t sweat it. Your time will come.

      Sarah wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • I can totally identify with this. I am in a very similar situation as you find yourself in. I’m a personal trainer so my days are spent focusing on someone else all day long and I spend most of my weekends with my gf (who also lives an hour away). I feel like I have no alone time for myself and I am constantly being worn down and not able to recharge myself.

      Justin wrote on March 25th, 2011
    • I could have written your post.. I’m in the same boat. I know this is old, but I find myself being mean to everyone when I’m overdue for alone time is causing a lot of problems I feel like I’m being forced to be on stage and I’m not ready!

      Alex wrote on December 7th, 2012
  10. Never underestimate the value of silence.

    What I mean by that is that without external distractions, by quieting the mind, we can listen to our inner self, which often has profound things to tell us about all aspects of life. From that position of balance we can in turn offer more of ourselves to our friends, family, and the external world at large.

    Primal Palette wrote on March 24th, 2011
  11. I’m easily distracted, so any time I can get away from work during my lunch or my wife is away for work, I’ll endulge in it by breaking out a book and/or listening to music.

    I must say, this article is very well-written. Of course, so are the rest of them!

    Purple Reign wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • So true!

      Mark, you probably get this all the time, but reading your site just makes me so happy. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

      Veronique wrote on March 24th, 2011
  12. One of my best vacations ever was when I took 3.5 days before a huge work conference and did a photo tour in Carmel CA area. It was beautiful and it was a great experience of looking internally and deciding what was important to me and what I wanted.

    I just proposed to my partner yesterday that during the summer (when we are thankfully out of school for a few months) that we each take 2 days of a solo vacation and on the 3rd day we reconvene and talk about our experience. I think it’s important to do that level of processing separately and then together even in a close relationship. Great article Mark!

    Katie wrote on March 24th, 2011
  13. I love my alone time. My alone time comes in the form of fishing. 90% of my fishing trips are all alone. It allows me to recharge, gather my thoughts, and I feel refreshed when I get back. I love to fish, but I realize that being alone is the other big part of the equation.

    Kyle wrote on March 24th, 2011
  14. I think many only children will completely agree with you on this post. As an only child myself, I cannot agree more.

    I definitely attribute my success in grade school to studying alone. Actually, EVERYTHING that I have ever been successful at in life has been from having plenty of alone time with the subject.

    Rich McCollum wrote on March 24th, 2011
  15. I think one of the reasons my husband and I get along well is that we are both the type who needs alone time. We enjoy hanging out together, but also are very comfortable doing our own thing and not needing constant interaction from each other. I think it makes conversations more stimulating, they aren’t forced and aren’t just to fill silence. You talk when you have something to say. Hiking is therapeutic that way, the combination of solitude, silence and nature is so peaceful…until you run into a bear ;-)

    Nomad1 wrote on March 24th, 2011
  16. I need my alone-time like I need air and water! Being a woman (and a Cancerian total-homebody besides) I do love being home alone. I work at home, and I focus so much better than I do in an office with others. But because I’m alone so much, I have to build in ways to be social. Otherwise I get too insular.

    Karen wrote on March 24th, 2011
  17. As most of the other commenters, I really value my alone time. This may sound unnatural, but I find one of the easiest ways to get it is in the car. A long car trip by myself is just what I need to clear my head and really feel alone. Walks are good too, but if we could all recognize that hours spent in the car alone can count as peaceful alone time, I think we’d be better off!

    Emily wrote on March 24th, 2011
  18. I think alone time is great, but quiet time is almost the same thing to me. If my husband is reading a book and I’m thinking and processing life, it seems just as beneficial to me.

    Roo wrote on March 24th, 2011
  19. LOL, I’m the introvert extraordinaire. Scheduling alone time is absolutely not an issue; I would probably benefit from forcing myself to socialize more.

    Miss Annie wrote on March 24th, 2011
  20. My one hour of solitude comes first thing in the morning and I do not know what I would do without.

    Gives me a chance to plan my day and rank the most important things to get done. Also, drink my coffee!

    Gary Deagle wrote on March 24th, 2011
  21. The woods. As long as there are trees and nobody else is around, everything is good.

    Alex Good wrote on March 24th, 2011
  22. One thing I have noticed is that I miss the alone time I have while being deployed for the different military operations currently going on. It is good to be away from family and friends and be able to have an hour or two to myself. Sometimes the best times are walking the yard and watching the sunset over the Hindu Kush. Its easy to forget where you are for a couple of moments.

    I have been a loner for most of my life. I am able to make friends easily and have many, but it is nice to spend time alone. Even if it is just leaving the wife and kids at home for an afternoon while I am out running errands. But she does the same, would be better if I was able to work in some wilderness alone time.

    Great article as always Mark, keep em coming.

    Chris wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Man, one of the toughest periods in my life was when I was in the Coast Guard and stationed aboard two different ships; jayzuz, you couldn’t get away from them. I always had a hidey-hole but “they” always managed to find me.

      Phocion Timon wrote on March 25th, 2011
  23. This would be great… if my wife and I were not raising 3 kids under 4 years old together. Personal space and “alone time” are not in their vocabulary.

    Duane Stevens wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Totally identify… Two and four-years-old here.

      Jen wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • I completely understand! We have a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old.

      Travis wrote on March 26th, 2011
  24. I’m a loner and I think that being “connected” or being a member of this or that group or community is highly over-rated.

    I get weary of hearing how we need to be social … blahblahblah. Many, maybe even most people need and want that, but it’s just not for everyone. I’d rather handle snakes at the Holiness Church than join a group.

    honeybee wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • “I’d rather handle snakes at the Holiness Church than join a group”…

      I LOVED this line! I’m still laughing about it.

      Anyone who craves alone time can totally relate!

      Peg wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • “Many, maybe even most people need and want [to be social], but it’s just not for everyone.”

      I believe there are far more introverts than extroverts — it’s just that the extroverts are much louder. ;-)

      bokbadok wrote on March 24th, 2011
  25. My husband and I work opposite shifts during the week which allows both of us alone time at home. We both find this very beneficial for both ourselves and our marriage.

    Primal K@ wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • For over twelve years my husband and I worked opposite shifts, also. Yes, I agree about the benefits. Even raising three children during this time worked well for us. Sunday was family day, that we spent skiing, sailing, hiking. Our kids usually always had a parent available to them, but on the other hand it garnered them more independence. They knew at what price our Sundays cut into the usual chores, so laundry, housecleaning, yard work (with veggie garden) was considered daily work, just like homework.

      Dragonfly wrote on March 24th, 2011
  26. So there’s science behind my solo running and motorbiking! I knew it intuitively all along …

    Geoffster wrote on March 24th, 2011
  27. Company is ok solitude is bliss.

    There is a certain freedom and potential to being alone where anything and everything feel possible.
    then you find yourself back with the same people the same friends almost like a cage , a trapped fixed , feeling I guess you could call it supportive.the way cement shoes are supportive.

    Song video : Tame Impala- solitude is Bliss

    Youtube it up Folks

    Alex wrote on March 24th, 2011
  28. I’ve noticed that since becoming Primal (and thereby curing the bipolar) I now really appreciate silence and alone time. Days and days of it is just fine by me.

    I wonder whether it’s something we grow into more as we age as well. I used to like to be involved with everything and very busy but now I love to ‘just be’. That’s probably why yoga really appeals to me now too, once on the mat with my eyes closed that is my alone time, even in a class setting.

    Kelda wrote on March 24th, 2011
  29. I love spending time with myself and I am starting to crave a house out in the middle of nowhere where I can walk out the door and straight into the woods, like I had growing up. We currently live so close to the neighbors that opening any windows or doors allows us to hear their kids in the backyard. Not much solitude in that!

    My current way of escaping is waking up early, before most anyone else, and walking the dog in the quiet pre-dawn…then curling up with a good book and some hot tea until everyone else wakes up. 8)

    Ali wrote on March 24th, 2011
  30. This is exactly why I’m doing my thru-hike – to spend the time in the woods alone, reflecting and simply being. I love getting out to where time doesn’t matter and the only way to tell it is if the sun is up or down. It’s a spartan lifestyle, but it allows for great processing of information.

    Eric wrote on March 24th, 2011
  31. I’ve known for years that my “inbox” gets full faster than other peoples, and everything that comes in after that just slides by. I retreat at that point, or I become a very unpleasant person; angry, put-upon, a cranky four-year-old in an adult body. I do tend to hold-up in my room; I think that getting out and doing some hiking might help. On my list of “crickets” as of today!

    Tsarla wrote on March 24th, 2011
  32. Another great topic that is well timed. I personally tend to spend a lot of time alone, so I have lost an appreciation for it, I have to strive in the other direction for balance. I spend a lot of time alone at work as is the nature of my business, the walks I take during the day are more to get fresh air, not be alone. Your blog did touch on something else though, given the constant attachment cell phones and computers give us to everyone else.

    I’m not sure if I am the only person that feels this way, but texting and internet messaging do not feel like activities that satisfy my need for a connection, I don’t really get it to be honest. I like to either be alone as this article suggests or be with someone in person, truly connecting. This is where I feel a problem lies, so many people in this day and age are neither disconnecting or connecting, but remaining in a constant state of flirtatious limbo. Just another example of how new technologies aren’t always all good, feels like kind of a theme for us primal types.

    Jeff wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • I’m with you, Jeff, I’ve never really gotten into using texting, IMing or twitter because they don’t provide the verbal and physical cues that face to face contact and interaction provide. (Yeah, there is some irony in leaving a reply to a blog comment) I’m also of the opinion of that continual connectedness to media output isn’t mentally healthy, particularly when the media output is negative and trivial.

      The vast majority of my work day is spent in solitude. I’m also an only child and the first three decades of my life had more than it’s fair share of solitude (and there are times when I’m truly over it). I still some need time to myself and it’s only beneficial when it’s away from my family or my workplace – and it’s outside in the elements.

      Ben J wrote on March 24th, 2011
      • I was thinking the same thing about how ironic it is to complain about texting and internet communication via a internet blog. I guess balance it the key :P.

        Jeff wrote on March 25th, 2011
  33. Solitude is key to mastering anything – when I lost my drivers licence for 8 months I managed to build amazing skill at a few things because I stopped socializing – almost to the point of unhealthiness lol

    Johnny Palmer wrote on March 24th, 2011
  34. I’m so glad to see I’m not the only one that needs her alone time! I, too, have more extroverted friends that can’t figure me out.
    But, then, I can’t understand their need for constant socializing, either! The only way I can think or process things going on in my life is by being alone. I feel I am a much healthier person as a result. Great article, Mark!

    Susan wrote on March 24th, 2011
  35. I’m an only child, as are my parents so I come from a family of people who like – and NEED – their alone time. I am a full-time grad student so I am at home a lot during the day by myself, and it is wonderful.

    unchatenfrance wrote on March 24th, 2011
  36. I have always thought that one reason school for kids doesn’t work very well is that they never have an opportunity to read or write or think alone while at school, or even after school. It’s very hard to learn in a room with thirty of your closest friends!

    I spend a lot of time alone during the summers and for a month in winter, when I’m at my farm, away from the city where I work. I love it and I find that I can focus better on my work. In the afternoons I go for a walk and sometimes see neighbors at that time. I like to get together with other people in the evening, after a day of work by myself. That seems like the right balance to me.

    I have noticed that some young people spend a great deal of time alone, but the whole time they are “alone,” they are actually “socializing” online. Thus they are neither truly alone in a healthy way, nor are they socializing in a healthy, real way. Some young people seem to have lost the ability to both be alone or with other people: they can only relate to other people easily via media. This is not good.

    shannon wrote on March 24th, 2011
  37. I love spending time alone in a beautiful scenic spot ..I believe that in order to truly tune in to life you have to tune out every once in a while :)

    simodalcais wrote on March 24th, 2011
  38. Interesting that men like outdoors more than woman. It seemed to me that part of seclusion is re-connecting with the environment instead of people. Cool research though.

    Nicky Spur wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • i’m not sure that’s true. there are times i’d love to be alone in a wilderness situation, but am not too sure of the safety of the situation. (i live in a high-crime metropolitan area.) if i can take my dog, it’s a different story…. one feels both secure and grounded in one’s own house, able to completely immerse oneself in solitude.

      tess wrote on March 24th, 2011
  39. So it’s not just me!!! :-) I love alone time and it’s pretty much the rule rather than the exception. It starts every morning with two labs hiking, some time with a horse….I enjoy social time when it comes along and have thought I need to schedule it in more to make sure I don’t get too disconnected, because I am so very comfortable and at peace alone. Social time is great and has its own great value, but I think people must really be very different from me if they don’t mind not getting their alone time (albeit with dogs, cats, horses, etc.) Time alone gives your mind a chance to be quiet and know where it is and where it wants to go. It’s been particularly invaluable at times in life when big life-changing decisions are called for. Clutter-free head.

    Jill wrote on March 24th, 2011
  40. I am an introvert, I love spending time by myself to think and process things. I don’t hike by myself because I am a little scared to do so, but we have a big park by our house that I can go and walk in so when its nice out I spend an hour or two there loving nature. I love people and do need them in my life but I definitely value time by myself.

    Mary wrote on March 24th, 2011

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