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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. Is that Lake Crescent in Washington???? We have that view all summer…its like our little piece of heaven here!!

    kelly gouge wrote on March 24th, 2011
  2. I was surprised to learn a few years ago that the actual definition of an introvert was not a person who was shy, nor was an extrovert an outgoing person. An introvert recharges themselves in solitude while an extrovert gains energy through a crowd. Needless to say this particular outgoing, people person re-classified herself as an introvert. Working a room takes actual work! Give me quiet time with the dog when it comes to feeling better.

    Alise Frye wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Amen!

      Dragonfly wrote on March 24th, 2011
  3. If I don’t have plenty of alone time, you most certainly don’t want to be around me during social time. I’ve got to find my peace to spread the peace.

    Sherry wrote on March 24th, 2011
  4. Great article! I love my alone time and find that I get irritable and make poor company when I don’t get enough of it. My preferred alone time is usually trail running. I will usually head to a nearby forest trail and run for at least an hour near a stream and through the redwood forest that we have here. It recharges me in a way that nothing else does. I find that it clears my mind and helps me solve problems that I am struggling with too. I usually come back with new ideas for how to address them. All in all, a worthwhile investment.

    Dr Kfm wrote on March 24th, 2011
  5. While growing up, my family labeled me “antisocial.” I spent my days outside as much as possible in the company of animals. When forced to join in social circles, I would people watch and be ridiculed for not talking. What I don’t think they realized was how much information I was processing about them and their interactions…..including my own.

    60 years later I have a small circle of friends, but through the years what amazes my mom and dad is how easily I can put others at ease and even make total strangers smile and converse. I feel my alone time (over 80%) makes me more in tune with what others may be feeling or needing. Possibly because my own needs are being met?

    Dragonfly wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • My childhood sounds very similar in this regard to yours. I have become very good at reading people by being more of an observer. Interestingly, animals are the same way. It is a very important survival mechanism. I do natural horsemanship training (for fun, not profit) and I feel I am a better “trainer” because of my honed observational skills. Just one of the many benefits of being more of an introvert.

      Susan wrote on March 24th, 2011
  6. I really love having time to myself and it’s true, you do get alot more done this way. I really enjoy going to the woods on a rainy day as I get the whole park to myself as most people will not travel to the parks even when a light shower is on. Going to the parks on holidays works well too as everyone else seems to be at home or at the movies no one really thinks to spend time at the park or beach. Which leaves it all to me !!!

    primal tree top wrote on March 24th, 2011
  7. I am definitely a “people person”, no doubt about that! I work in an industry (restaurant) where I interact with hundreds of people weekly. I used to sell real estate, lol. I connect well with people and have lots of social relationships on different levels.
    What I miss is being able to crash out on the beach for 8 hrs alone..or to camp in the woods..a Hubby who hates to camp and 2 kids later, I do not seem to get as much “recharge” time as I like. Although, now that Hubby is working mornings again, and the kids are in school, I at least may get some peace…my green thumb is also itchy again after being on hiatus. I have decided to have my city garden after all!
    This goes with the previous article about writing, it is difficult to do without some peace and quiet!
    I get “grumpy” during the winter because I am stuck inside. I don’t enjoy the cold/wet/snow/ice/rain that my New England winters bring. I myself blossom come spring warm weather, which lets me enjoy some outdoor time..and yes, I feel happier. Which makes me more pleasant to be around:)

    juliemama wrote on March 24th, 2011
  8. After many years of being unavailable for family functions(I have a HUGE family)due to my abnormal work schedule, (I make way too much money to take off a random weekend day/night) The expectations over the years have disappeared. Maybe I’ll make it, or not. What a relief.I make it a point to be there for the most important things, but they will do just fine without me!I am not obligated in the least.

    juliemama wrote on March 24th, 2011
  9. I understand that need for alone time, I get the most in my garden. Like others mentioned if I’m not getting my quotient I get cranky. That is part of my problem with winter, my alone time decreases

    bbuddha wrote on March 24th, 2011
  10. Hurray for introverts. 😀 Anything in excess isn’t very good. Too much socializing, especially for introverts, could be taxing and emotionally draining.

    Mighty wrote on March 24th, 2011
  11. I’m going to go against the grain here and say that I sometimes feel I have too much alone time. I often crave company but feel like I don’t get enough of it due to not having that many friends I can rely on to hang out with, so end up being a bit lonely.

    I think a balance is needed for those like me who’re in the middle of the extra-to-intro-vert scale. I completely understand the need to be alone after spending a long time socialising, or the wonders of a good solo hike, or solitude for learning, art, spirituality, etc but I need time with people too :)

    sl wrote on March 24th, 2011
  12. Sometimes I dream of just sitting. Just being. In the quiet. Just me. No screaming or tantrums. No one to interrupt as I eat a meal in complete peace, or complete a run in silence, or finish a hike with just the birds and the bees for company. (I have a two year old. He is throwing a tantrum at this very moment. So I dream…). Very nice post today.

    Dawn wrote on March 24th, 2011
    • Hang in there, Dawn. I’m right there with you. BTW, totally understand about eating a meal in peace.

      Jen wrote on March 25th, 2011
  13. I don’t need any encouragement to be alone.

    Working in an office or dealing with a husband and kids is about as much of other people as I can manage.

    Reflecting, reading, journaling, working quietly in a focused way are how I spend the rest of my time. Too much extroversion and I’m quickly exhausted.

    Alison Golden wrote on March 24th, 2011
  14. I love alone time. For years, as a stay-at-home-homeschooling Mom, I got it so rarely, I often felt at the end of my rope. Now, the kids are in public school and I get a lot more time just me, myself, and I. It’s priceless, and I know it makes me a better Mom, wife, friend, self, etc. I do also try to give my kids and husband time for solitude. It’s not easy with all of us in such a small apartment, but it’s important enough to make the effort. Because it would feel even smaller in here if we didn’t get alone time.

    Melissa Fritcher wrote on March 24th, 2011
  15. I spend time alone daily, and I could not live any other way.

    tootsie wrote on March 24th, 2011
  16. Great post Mark. I’m currently on a 40 day hiatus from twitter and Facebook. The info diet is important too.

    rsg wrote on March 24th, 2011
  17. I love being alone. In fact, I love going places when I know I’m going to be there…. :-)

    Clint W wrote on March 24th, 2011
  18. Another great post.

    Scott wrote on March 24th, 2011
  19. As a leave no trace wilderness backpacker who does ten or so days alone each summer, it is impossible to assess the good that the solitude of California’s Sierrs Nevada have offered. Immesurably beneficial is my estimation of solitude.

    drdavidflynn wrote on March 24th, 2011
  20. Lone time is a cherished point for me, even being single. To be able to read a book, workout, cook, nap – and not have to answer to anyone is priceless. Another thing I enjoy during some Quiet Time is reflection. I whip out my Moleskine and dump my brain of anything that’s is occupying precious memory. I make a list of goals for the week or ideas of things I want to do. Segmenting your Moleskine to categorize such items is a great way to keep things organized and then you can go back and review at will.

    Jeff wrote on March 24th, 2011
  21. I’m in my 40s and was/am an only child. I crave alone time and it’s tough to get any with a wife (who doesn’t understand my need) and 4-year-old. Matter of fact, my wife sees a huge problem with our son being an only child and this article almost give me an argument to keep him that way. Thanks

    CJ wrote on March 24th, 2011
  22. I am lucky enough to get all I need. A couple of hours cycling on a lonely hilly road with gorgeous views, sweet.

    kem wrote on March 25th, 2011
  23. I’m a bit of a loner myself. I do like meeting people and socializing, in fact I really need it in order to stay sane, but some of my golden moments are when I’m alone :)

    Kris wrote on March 25th, 2011
  24. This post makes me yearn even more than normal for my first solo camping trip of the year near Lake Michigan. While it ain’t the Appalachian Trail – there are secret places for solitude I share only with the best of friends. Back to nature is the best!

    Pam wrote on March 25th, 2011
  25. Wow, what a lot of primal introverts! Am I the only one who doesn’t like being alone? I would go so far as to say I hate being alone. I think after years of studying at a distance, working alone from home and having a husband who travels a lot for work alone time feels like a ‘waste’ or something to get away from.

    Having said that I now work in a busy office and have more local friends, and get stressed a lot – maybe more deliberate alone time would be good.

    Frankly the idea of it bores / slightly terrifies me. I’m working on it though :-)

    And I wouldn’t say I need a crowd – I’m not a big crowds person, but I like one other person, or a small group around. And I am a big joiner of clubs.

    Alexa wrote on March 25th, 2011
  26. Heh, as a card-carrying loner, being alone is an absolute necessity. If I’m in the presence of even a single person for more than a few hours I get twitchy. (“Jeremiah Johnson” and “Cast Away” are my two favorite movies.)

    I am thankful everyday my job allows me to be alone–almost isolated–95% to 100% of any given day.

    Phocion Timon wrote on March 25th, 2011
    • Addendum to my above post: I frickin’ LOVE texting and the occasional IM since there is no up-close-and-personal interaction with others.

      Phocion Timon wrote on March 25th, 2011
  27. Nice to see more recognition of what those of us who spend time alone in the wilderness have always known. Ten years ago on the clearance shelf of a bookstore I found one of the rare books on the subject, “The Call Of Solitude: Alonetime In A World Of Attachment” by Esther Shaler Buchholz, PhD. Finally an academic who recognized solitude as necessary and therapeutic rather than indicative of some sort of mental or social pathology.

    Paleo Man wrote on March 25th, 2011
  28. Mark,

    I absolutely loved this post. I am totally the same way. I need “me” time sometimes, and sometimes people don’t get that, which can create weird situations. I get really antsy, and mild anxiety if I don’t get that “me” time every now and then.

    In fact, last summer, shortly after the NY times posted an article on dis-connecting from technology, I went out to mt. laguna for a camping trip – solo. It was a wonderful day to enjoy the wilderness, go for a bike ride, enjoy the views, listen to my own thoughts, do some writing, listen to the sounds of nature without the sounds of society (it always take a little bit to adapt, but the “feeling” of hearing nature is wonderful), and like your friend said: to just be. It was such a great weekend, and when I returned back home to people throwing chaos my way, I simply responded that I just got back from the mountains where I was trying to find a little peace, and I honestly don’t care about your little problems!

    Awesome, Awesome post.

    Ryan Denner wrote on March 25th, 2011
  29. I am so relieved to have so many people validate my feelings. I too feel stressed if I can’t have quite a bit of time alone. I hear the same thing from every dating relationship I have “We don’t spend enough time togeter.” I pass for a total extrovert in social situations, but at my core I am introverted. Thanks for the great article Mark!

    Stacy wrote on March 25th, 2011
  30. And the introverts unite! 😛

    Another introvert here. Being introverted has meant mothering has been more challenging to me than I EVER could have expected.

    We know have it so that I get some scheduled alone time EVERY week, and hubby takes the boys (6 and 4) to do something fun. Works out GREAT.

    lisser wrote on March 25th, 2011
  31. I am so glad that my loving being alone is not totally strange! My husband works all day, so I have the whole day to myself. It is WONDERFUL. Having a lot of social arrangements limed up stresses me out, I love to have the time to just be.

    Primalista wrote on March 25th, 2011
  32. Kids need solitude, but it can be almost impossible for them to get these days. I was blessed to grow up on the edge of backcountry in the mountain west, able to hike off by myself father and farther by the time I was six or seven. It was wonderful and filled the deepest needs for both solitude and adventure for a boy. Today’s parents face real challenges, how their kids can enjoy this sort of thing while still being reasonably protected from risk. I know that my mom and siblings needed me to be off by myself at times as much as I needed to be away!

    Paleo Man wrote on March 25th, 2011
  33. Solitude might be the best thing about running for me, aside from the obvious fitness benefits. Even if its only an hour, being alone, early in the morning, outside … honestly, sometimes I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.

    jodaro wrote on March 25th, 2011
  34. Like Primal Toad, I too am very much an introvert. I have few friends, and rarely associate with them. I learned a long time ago that I can be in a group and still be “alone”. I simply shut everyone and everything else out. My wife used to ask if I was listening to her. Now she says I need a hearing aid. But I am focusing on my thoughts and feelings, and have shut out all the trash. So I don’t have to trek off to Alaska for solitude. I can do it anytime.

    Bull wrote on March 25th, 2011
  35. I think the more time you spend by yourself, opens your eyes to so many different possibilities, you go away from the day to day troubles and you can chill in peace!

    Great post!

    Top 20 Lists wrote on March 25th, 2011

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