Solitude: A Path to Move Through Loneliness
Solitude – the state of being alone - is not the same as loneliness. Social rejection, forced isolation, and lack of relationships create interpersonal loneliness. This is an unpleasant emotional state. It’s an unmet desire to be with others when you are alone.
Loneliness can also be existential, like feeling empty, incomplete, disconnected and lacking a sense of purpose from within. It’s possible to feel lonely in a social gathering with friends, a group of acquaintances, or a crowd of strangers.
There’s no single reason for loneliness. Sometimes it’s due to a mismatch between your inner desires and outer world. This could be due to an internal change, like outgrowing your profession or workplace, or an external change, like moving to a different neighborhood, switching schools or starting a new job.
Prolonged loneliness can lead to despair, which affects our mental health and physical wellness. In extreme cases, it may even lead to an early death or death by suicide.
Solitary confinement and social outcasting are some of the worst forms of punishment. In psychoanalysis, Object Relations Theory basically states humans are social beings who need to have rewarding relationships to be fulfilled. And yet, the need for alone time is as vital to human life as the need for social interaction.
When you practice solitude, you will be better able to move through loneliness with skill, rather than try to end it unskillfully at all costs.
While loneliness is a negative state of mind, solitude is a chosen state of being. Although there are books, videos, and research studies discussing the benefits of solitude, the desire to socially withdraw is often seen as pathological. A person who enjoys alone time and welcomes solitude can be mistaken for a loner.
In Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, author Anneli Rufus says true loners do not just welcome solitary retreats to recharge. They want to be alone and left alone during much of life. Michaelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Bobby Fischer, Georgia O’ Keefe, and Albert Einstein kept to themselves and were all loners, she says.
The “l” word is stigmatized and is typically associated with the mentally insane and the most notorious criminals. Prime examples are the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson, who were labeled as loners in the media, but had social motives. They were pseudo-loners.
Real loners are not driven by a need for acceptance or approval and are not concerned with others’ opinions and actions. Real loners are not unhappy with being alone and do not need drugs or therapy to become social and sane. Society might cause them to think they need this intervention, even when they don’t necessarily lack social skills or have social anxiety.
Rufus doesn’t clearly state whether healthy loners are the same as extreme introverts. What I gathered is that loners are not affected by outside activity and don’t desire being with people, although they like discussing ideas with others. Meanwhile, introverts are affected by external stimuli and need to retreat to alone time. They also enjoy social connections and invite social interactions to varying degrees.
No matter your personality type, solitude is alone time to recharge from external demands. When deliberately chosen, solitude is therapeutic, not unhealthy. It’s a reward, not punishment. It’s tuning into yourself so you can better connect with others, not isolating yourself so you lose the ability to engage with others.
To use solitude for moving through loneliness, you experiment and recalibrate. The frequency and length of alone time you need depend on your temperament, personality, energy levels and life situation. It’s up to you to decide how to best integrate spending time alone and spending time with others.
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In the 1920’s psychologist Carl Jung introduced the terms introversion and extraversion. Every person can display introverted traits or extroverted traits, depending on the context and situation. Although there are ambiverts who can easily move between the personality types, one of the two tends to be dominant in most people.
Introverts enjoy solitude more than extroverts. Although they can enjoy social connections and the external world, they tend to get overstimulated by them and need quiet alone time to recharge.
During infancy and early childhood, our attachment to parents or parent substitutes is critical for survival, writes author and psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Storr in his 1988 book, Solitude: A Return to the Self. He advised that children be given time and opportunity for solitude when they are old enough to enjoy it.
Another psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, wrote that the capacity to be alone starts with the infant experiencing being alone in the presence of others and building secure attachment. Secure children grow into emotionally mature adults who are capable of being alone for longer periods without fear and worry.
Even if you lean toward extroversion and thrive on social interaction, you can benefit from alone time just as well. You might also need it more.
Loneliness is a human condition. When you experience it, you might automatically assume that what you need are interpersonal relationships. But solitude can also help you move through this unpleasant state.
Alone time brings four key benefits, which are part of a productive and meaningful life.
The first benefit of Solitude is Intentionality. This is the mental state you need to decide on a course of action. Without this, you cannot form an intention to direct your behavior and channel your motivation.
Solitude helps you to make deliberate choices based on your core values, principles and purpose. When you’re alone, you have the most freedom to be yourself. You gain deeper self-awareness of who you are and who you want to be. You get to invest your time, attention and efforts on what really matters to you.
In his book Digital Minimalism, author Cal Newport says we have a Solitude Deprivation problem. This is, “A state in which you spend close to zero time with your thoughts and free from input from other minds.”
The 20th century French philosopher, Rene Girard, said: “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”
Luke Burgis, an expert in Girard’s mimetic theory and author of the book, Wanting, says it’s important to reflect on experiences where you made tremendous effort and derived deep satisfaction from it. Such personal stories will reveal your thick desires.
In solitude, you create physical space and mental clarity to differentiate your thick desires from your thin desires. Your thick desires are harder to fulfill and are more enduring across time. Your thin desires are quicker fixes that are more fleeting and fad-based.
Whether you’re a quiet introvert or a talkative extrovert, you benefit from solitude when being around others hinders you from connecting with yourself. As Dr. Storr pointed out, extroverts can lose contact with their internal needs by focusing too much on the external needs of others. For society to function, we sometimes adopt social practices, norms and rules that we don’t agree with. Even open, sociable people need alone time to discover and support their true self.
Paradoxically, solitude enables you to strengthen friendships and form higher-quality relationships. When you’re intentional, you’re not constantly looking around for the next thing, but noticing where you can engage better with what’s in front of you.
In the 1854 classic, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
While Thoreau described the importance of communing with nature and living in solitude, he also enjoyed the company of others. From 1845 to 1847, he lived alone in a cabin not in the deep wilderness, but on the edge of Walden Pond, just two miles outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts. He entertained visitors in his cabin, one or two and up to 25 or 30 at a time. He believed that solitude and connection with oneself were necessary to have society and connection with others.
The second benefit of solitude is Intellectuality. This is the ability to learn, understand, and become well-informed to solve problems and make good decisions.
Solitude is necessary for checking in with yourself and avoiding actions that are not only bad for you, but may also cause direct harm and second-order consequences for others. CEOs, politicians, leaders and self-leading team members need alone time to listen to their thoughts and reflect on their impulses.
Before you look to others for feedback and validation, you must first examine your innermost thoughts and intuition.
While being agreeable helps to maintain society, you should also be informed about what you’re agreeing to, especially in non-trivial matters. In solitude, you consider multiple perspectives, separate facts from narratives, and prepare for genuine dialogue.
Alone time strengthens the creative process, which Graham Wallas, an English scholar from the London School of Economics, divided into four stages. The first is Preparation, which is when you develop an initial interest in a subject, capture information, and research all you can about it. The second is Incubation, where you unconsciously think about the problem and allow ideas to simmer. The third is Illumination, which is when you get a new insight or new solution to the problem. The fourth is verification, where you test the validity of the idea.
Alone time is vital especially in stages 2 and 3. Incubation is passive scanning, sorting and reordering information. It can take minutes, hours, months and even years. Illumination is when your brain forms a great idea, seemingly with little effort and often in a flash. It may happen after you’ve just woken up and had time to sleep on a difficult decision. Or it might be when you’re in the shower and your mind starts to link new information and old knowledge in novel ways.
Solitude builds System 2 thinking by slowing down our response to stimuli. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Khaneman explains this is different from System 1 thinking, which is fast, automatic and takes little effort. System 2 thinking is a solitary activity that requires single focus, conscious effort and high concentration. It’s needed for complex, multidimensional problems.
Solitude is not just for genius artists and scholars, but for anyone who wants to spark imagination, creativity and mental agility for high-cognitive work.
Dr. Storr wrote, “some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.”
In modern society, there can be an overemphasis on acquiring only knowledge and skills that build material wealth and bring tangible benefits. But solitude encourages you to engage in lifelong learning, ask questions, and pursue creative, spiritual and philosophical interests that make a richer life.
Intellectuality makes you stay curious and keep a sense of wonder, no matter what.
Let’s say, for example, you’re concerned about the environment. You could shift from negative, doom-and-gloom news to positive, empowering true stories about nature’s resilience and how humans have helped to sustain it. You could focus less on externally-oriented, top-down solutions like electric cars and wind power and more on internally-based, bottom-up remedies, like your current consumption habits. This doesn’t mean getting rid of your stuff, decluttering or obsessing over whether every possession makes you happy or serves a purpose. Rather, it’s making mindful and wise choices.
(Video clip of Tim Cook, CEO, Apple): “Introducing the iphone 6s and the iphone 6s plus.”
(Video of Tim Cook, CEO, Apple): “We are so excited for iphone 13.”
Solitude lets you sharpen your critical thinking skills and see through manipulation and marketing tactics.
The third benefit of solitude is Simplicity. This is the practice of focusing on the essentials and harnessing the power of less but better.
You get clarity on what’s trivial so you can focus on top priorities and necessary goals. Simplicity is different from the minimalist aesthetics style you see on Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube. It’s not about stripping down your possessions to the bare minimum and ending up with a clean, sleek, clutter-free, white-walled home. Minimalism is the process of owning less and making physical space. In contrast, simplicity is a state of being that leads to less mental clutter and a life of less complexity.
Although it’s natural to strive for more, we also need to watch out for hedonic adaptation. Our happiness levels return to baseline once we achieve the goal or get the thing we want. By embracing solitude, we can simplify and take a break from the hedonic treadmill. Alone time also allows us to level up when we need a challenge.
In her book Dopamine Nation, psychiatrist Anne Lembke notes in today’s society, our basic needs like food, water, and shelter, are often readily met. She notes that the chronic use of addictive drugs or digital entertainment may create a dopamine deficit state, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The neurochemical dopamine affects how we experience reward and take action.
Pleasure and pain are processed in the same part of the brain. To keep balance in the brain so there’s not too much pain or too much pleasure, your body downregulates the dopamine levels. This resets your dopamine threshold to the point where nothing is enjoyable. So, even if you get pleasure from watching YouTube videos, watching too many leads to homeostasis. Once the activity gets boring, you stop. But when you feel a little down, you go on another binge-watch to get the pleasure again. Repetition doesn’t bring the same enjoyment because the dopamine base levels are lower.
Chronic use of addictive stimulus doesn’t just keep you on the hedonic treadmill. It can also create the anhedonic state, where the ongoing pursuit of higher rewards lead to demotivation and dissatisfaction.
To build your resilience to boredom and escape the anhedonic state, you can use your alone time to think, visualize, daydream, mind wander, and do nothing. If you can’t do this for 15 minutes, start with 2 minutes. If shutting yourself in a room and staring at the walls doesn’t help, look out the window or step outside. In short, the less stimuli you need to feel satisfied, the more peace of mind you will have.
To learn more about how to rest and recharge for a productive life, check out my book, The Incrementalist. You can find it on Amazon and Leanpub. The links are in the show notes.
The fourth benefit of solitude is Self-sufficiency. This is the power to rely on oneself and one’s resources to be whole. When you have strong self-worth, you don’t rely on temporary external validation to feel good and complete.
In solitude, you empower yourself to add value through positive contributions rather than expect protection through group cohesion.
While it’s hard to be fully self-sufficient in today’s specialized world, the more self-reliant you are, the more content you will be. Relationships make up a meaningful life, but they also come and go, form and change. But you are always a part of nature and nature is always a part of you.
Spend your alone time in the natural, physical world, instead of the virtual, onscreen environment. Take a walk through the forest or by the ocean. Listen to birdsong or the wind rustle through the trees. Observe the clouds, the sky, the rocks, and the stones. Play a musical instrument, read a good book, meditate, pray, or journal. Do light chores, garden or take care of your plants. Engage in a flow activity that makes you feel alive and creative.
By practicing solitude, you learn to be your own best company. You not only become a more self-sufficient person who doesn’t demand or require approval from others. You also become a healthier individual who draws other healthy people to you.
Solitude is a viable path to move through loneliness because it allows you connect with yourself, as well as with others.
Dr. Storr concluded, “The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.”
To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to productive living, you may reach out to me for coaching or speaking events. If you found value in this episode, click the like and share buttons and drop your feedback in the comments section. This will help the show grow and reach you and others. And if you want to keep learning how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. Thank you for joining me and tune in again to The Incrementalist.
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