In today’s connected world, it can seem almost imperative that we remain in touch with others 24/7. The ‘ding’ signifying “you’ve got mail” or a new text message or a new Instagram post continues no matter what we are doing. Newer mobile devices allow us to silence that ‘ding’ while we sleep. But the first thing many of us do – even before getting out of bed – is to check new messages and postings from our friends.
Yet science and two millennia of philosophers tell us that alone time – solitude – is just as important to our well being as being connected to others.
If we are continually exposed to the opinions of others, it is difficult for us to form our own views. But when we are alone, we can make choices free of those outside influences. We aren’t concerned about how our choices might impact someone else’s feelings. We develop more insight into who we are as individuals when we are alone with our thoughts.
“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free1.” This is the way 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer addressed being alone.
Many other philosophers, including Huxley, Mann, Goethe and Jung have expressed similar thoughts.
Even the poet William Wordsworth celebrated solitude in verse:
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.
Learning about ourselves by spending time alone helps us become better equipped to be our authentic selves with others.
Social Beings and Creativity
Still, current wisdom tells us that we are social beings. We need companionship and affection from other humans to thrive. Indeed, some claim that interpersonal relationships are the only source of human happiness.
Yet the creative mind seems to thrive best in a solitary environment. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers – including Descartes, Newton, Locke, Kant and Nietzsche – had neither families nor close personal relationships.
So it seems that both conditions – in their own time – may be necessary for us to achieve our best.
Spiritual Needs vs. Human Needs
Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, a contemporary and confidant of Sigmund Freud, described the these conditions as the spiritual self and the human self.
“It seems to be difficult for the individual to realize that there exists a division between one’s spiritual and purely human needs, and that the satisfaction and fulfillment for each has to be found in different spheres2.”
It is well established that the ability to form relationships on equal terms is a sign of emotional maturity. Indeed, the lack of this ability is taken as a sign of mental illness.
However, our need to be alone – to be momentarily separate from other human attachment – is seldom considered.
It is has been shown that people who set aside time for solitude tend to be happier. They report more satisfaction with life and lower stress levels. They also are less likely to be depressed3.
I Don’t Have Time
Seeking solitude doesn’t take a lot of time. Studies have shown that being alone with your thoughts for as little as 10 minutes a day can be beneficial. Of course, a little more is preferable. I try to get at least 30 minutes for myself each day. Sometimes, that isn’t possible, but it’s a goal.
A Place of Our Own
The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne advocated setting aside a special place for solitude. “We must preserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude4.”
Even a character as powerful as Superman had a Fortress of Solitude, as depicted in the original 1938 DC Comics storyline. The iconic 1950s television production “Adventures of Superman” ignored this space. However, it was featured in the 1978 movie Superman, starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.
In both the DC Comics version and the movie, the Fortress of Solitude is depicted as a cold and rather featureless place. But it was Superman’s choice for a sanctuary to get away from civilization.
Some people, both women and men, have a small outbuilding – a “she-shed” in some vernacular – where they can go to be alone. If an outbuilding isn’t practical, a space set aside in the home – the classic “man-cave” – can serve equally well5.
Seeking Solitude Does Not Mean Being Lonely
Many people in today’s world describe themselves as lonely much or all of the time. This, despite having greater capacity for connecting with others through social media than has ever been possible in face-to-face interactions.
Some people “emphasize how crucial it is for them to be invited to this party or that dinner, not because they especially want to go (though they generally do go) nor because they will get enjoyment, companionship, sharing of experience and human warmth in the gathering (very often they do not, but are simply bored). Rather, being invited is crucial because it is a proof that they are not alone6.”
Loneliness can be so powerful to many people that they cannot conceive of the benefits of solitude. It can even be a frightening prospect. People suffer from “the fear of finding oneself alone. And so they don’t find themselves at all7.”
Try the Experience
If you think you don’t have time to quietly sit and think, or don’t need it, you probably need it more than ever. The busier we are, the more we can benefit from some quiet time.
Whether it’s retreating to your quiet place, taking a walk alone, or going for a drive, silence your electronics and be alone with your thoughts. At first, you might find the lack of activity and the silence to be uncomfortable. But give it time. You’ll soon learn that setting time alone is an essential element of rejuvenating your thoughts, maintaining mental balance, and ultimately enriching your life.
- Hollingdale, RJ. Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms. Penguin, 2004.
- Art and Artist, Otto Rank, Tudor, 1932, p. 155.
- Long, C.R. and Averill, J.R. (2003), Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 33: 21-44. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5914.00204.
- Marvelly, Paula. “Michel De Montaigne: On Solitude” The Culturium, 6 July 2020, www.theculturium.com/michel-de-montaigne-on-solitude/
- My own iteration is a room in our basement off my photo studio. It is set up as a family tv viewing area – it has the largest television in our house. But I designed it also to be darkened and have a good audio setup where I can go to relax and listen to music.
- “Loneliness – Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May Ph.D., W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, pp. 19–20.
- André Gide, quoted in ibid, p.20