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24 Mar

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

solitudeI 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:

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  1. Haven’t posted here in a while, but I’m a regular reader. Pretty interesting read. I’m usually the type of person that sticks to himself. I’m an introvert. Not that I’m an outcast or don’t like to be around people, but for the most part I find peace in solitude. Maybe with one person (my girlfriend) I find peace, but other than that I tend to stick to myself. Oddly enough I’ll have moments where I crave being part of a group, but I think that stems mostly from a “need” of acceptance.

    Jonathan wrote on April 1st, 2011
  2. I know this is an old post, but I saw this while flipping through the website. I teach English in Seoul and live in the same buildings as all the other English teachers. We are constantly around each other, even though we have our own apartments. This weekend I decided my time must be spent alone, because I need to recharge my batteries and do things my own way – active in the daytime, sleeping at night, just being me. I find that I get sick physically when I don’t take time out from other people.

    Miriam wrote on May 1st, 2011
  3. Mark, just getting around to work some of these articles off in my e-mail bucket (lol), but I found this article to be especially important and relevant.

    This late response probably won’t be very helpful but what the heck.

    I have found out 2 things in my life. 1: I have enjoyed solitude for a large duration of my life (even as an adolescent). 2: I have grown more and more introverted as I have gotten older.

    I suspect that the social/solitude balance is different for everyone depending on their extro/introvertedness balance (so to speak).

    For me, “down time” is where I get my power and focus. It is my opportunity to think/meditate and sort things out, plan for the near term or far term, etc. And I usually feel good as a result.

    This article was a huge confirmation of my feelings towards down time. Thanks for writing this!

    Iluvatar wrote on June 19th, 2011
  4. What a crack of shit, you guys should thank you have somebody at all in your lives. I am a sick person and I live my days on the most of the solitudes and my life is miserable. And I have been ill since I was 26, now I am 30 and still counting. No one accepts a person that complains all day and no one gives a shit about me, and that is not what I think, is what I live. By the way, I am not fat nor ugly, people just suck.

    whata wrote on August 7th, 2011
  5. I have always loved the “alone time”. Though I always have had a good no. of friends around me, I strongly feel that once a month or so, you need to take time out of your busy schedule just for YOURSELF. :) :)

    star101 wrote on January 25th, 2012
  6. Jesus even spent in the wilderness…..he even told his followers to do it. Ive gotten so busy in the last few years. Its time to get back to time alone in the woods. Thanks for the reminder!

    Todd Glasgow wrote on August 26th, 2012
  7. I have just returned from a trip to Italy with my husband and daughter and that was 12 days ago. They both go back to work and school tomorrow and today I am so snappy and irritable as I havnt had much alone time recently. I helped my daughter do a scrapbook all morning and have retreated to my bedroom to ‘switch off’ I don’t think my husband understands but I am at home alone in term time and like it like that. I then need time with people again. Too much of people or alone time isnt good but getting the right amount is.

    Joanna Biddiss wrote on June 2nd, 2013

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