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The Art of Solitude: How to Be Alone in a World Full of People

My brother John, meditating upon a river in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the rain

Too often, we associate being alone with negativity.  We associate being alone with loneliness, depression, brooding, etc.  There is certainly truth to the fact that isolation can be negative, particularly for those battling addiction, depression or some other mental health-related issue.  We also know that socializing with other hoomans is a positive force in terms of making one whole and of sound mind.  But just as true, if rather an often more neglected side of solitude, are the positive benefits of being alone: Jesus went into the desert for forty days: the Buddha spent seven full weeks under the Bodhi tree, coming to enlightenment: authors such as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey and Henry David Thoreau, retreated to spaces away from civilization when they wrote their respective ecological classics.  These authors and these divines withdrew from society, away from the world of people and things, into a space where they could be with and process and explore their own thoughts, feelings and emotions.  Purposefully choosing moments of isolation and solitude presents one with a whole range of positive benefits that might otherwise elude.

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Interestingly, the first forty Google results using the search phrase, “being alone”, overwhelmingly produce titles and links that imply or explicitly claim that being alone is good for us.  A full 60% of the first forty hits on Google result in links with titles or tag lines such as, “Benenfits of being alone”, “Rules for being alone and happy”, “Being alone is an important skill”.  The remaining forty percent produced five links/titles that imply a neutral stance, with titles such as “On Being Alone”, or “Being alone: the pros and cons”, which merely reflect the search criteria verbatim; the search produced only four links (of the first forty) that were expressly negative; that is to say, they didn’t argue that being alone was necessarily bad, only that, in certain cases, it could be.  Searching Google with the alternative phrase, “solitude”, produces similar results to searching for “being alone”.  Outside of Google, a search of academic databases and peer reviewed journals produces a somewhat different perspective.  Often, the titles are much less ambiguous and there is a vast difference between using the search term “alone” versus the search term “solitude”.  Overwhelmingly, “alone” produces studies relating to depression, anxiety, articles associated with introverts and extroverts, while “solitude” produces more positive results frequently using studies focusing on religious communities.  So, while society, according to Google, generally sees being alone as a positive function of the healthy psyche, academics draw a much harder line.  And yet, they both, essentially, come to the same conclusion: that being alone is, on the whole, good for you.  Here’s why. 

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A note to readers: I vacillate between using the term ‘solitude’ and the phrase ‘being alone’ in this essay.  I use them interchangeably, and readers may understand them as saying the same thing. 

If, as a reader, you are already experiencing some degree of discomfort in reading this, you probably don’t quite feel comfortable in being alone.  In part, this is because today’s society conditions us to feel the need to perpetually be with and interact with others.  An article in Psychology Todayexplains why: “We haven’t been given the opportunity to exercise our solitude. In raising our children, we put a premium on collaboration and concentrated thinking and ignore things like daydreaming and reverie. Concentrated thinking and daydreaming need to be exercised in tandem. You need collaborative thinking in school, but you also need time that allows for free association.”  Of course, socializing and collaboration are important, it’s how we progress as individuals and as a society.  We also need time to process that collaboration, those interactions, and it’s damn near impossible to do that with further collaboration and more social interaction.   To do that we must sit with ourselves and be alone.

Research shows that some places are better than others in achieving solitude.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably have a pretty good idea of where this is heading.  Wanna take a guess?  If you said outside, you’d be spot on.  A study conducted by Averil and Long and published in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, conducted a poll on the places people most experienced solitude.  They found that 39% of interviewees experience this in their homes, which seems an obvious conclusion.  This also makes the most sense, as, for most of us, home will be the place in which we can most easily find space that belongs only to us.  27% of people surveyed said they experienced solitude while out of doors.  For the purposes of this essay, what I found most striking was that when asked, hypothetically, where the best place to find solitude might be, undergraduates (the population surveyed) responded overwhelmingly (67%) that locations such as a mountaintop, a beach, or a river would be ideal.  Instinctively, whether we act on that instinct or not, we know that getting outside is good for us. 

The view from Siler’s Bald on our recent trip to The Great Smoky Mountains

Not only is solitude an important aspect of processing social interactions, it is itself, in some ways, a social interaction, and thus, necessary to our personal freedom.  Society needs to reframe its thinking on this aspect of being alone.  I’ve already mentioned how we are trained from a young age to behave and perform in society.  Think about all the ways in which our environments further determine our social interactions, our behavior: the way we interact with a clerk at the grocery store or at a bank is very different from the way we interact with a policeman, a co-worker or colleague.  This too, is yet different from the way we interact with family or close friends.  We are confined and limited in such spaces.  It is so confining, in fact, that we have no shortage of automatic responses to many common social interactions, and patterns of human speech repeatedly come back to preprogrammed or autom automatic responses:  when we meet someone we ask, “How are you today?”  The appropriate response: “Fine, thanks.  And you?”  Discussion with strangers more often than not comes down to talking about the weather: “Gonna be a scorcher today.”  Or think of the many aphorisms with which we fill our speech patterns: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”:  “Don’t judge a book by its cover”:  “Know what side your bread is buttered on”.  These answers, in countless scenarios, are programmed responses to external stimuli.  This is not a bad thing; in fact, such programmed responses aid us in getting through the day.  Imagine having to have an in-depth, philosophical discussion with every person you meet, coming to know that person intimately.  It’s an empath’s nightmare; and it would be insanely taxing on intellectual and emotional energy.  There would be nothing left for personal growth.  Solitude allows us to escape these confines and try on “new selves”, so to speak.  One researcher found that “by extracting us from our customary social and physical contexts (or at least altering our experience of them), solitude facilitates self-examination, reconceptualization of the self, and coming to terms with change (Storr, 1989).  Periodically removing ourselves from the confines of that which determines our behavior—society—aids us in becoming more autonomous and functional individuals within that very society.  Until we learn to do this, we will never truly be real boys and girls, but rather, puppets on strings pulled by the miscellaneous rabble. 

There are lots of other reasons solitude is good for us.  These include: escaping judgment: processing thoughts/feelings: exploring values without distraction and an increased sense of spirituality.  In fact, spirituality seems to be one benefit that virtually all articles on solitude have in common.  This does not mean religiousness.  Spirituality, as I use it here, and I think society uses the term more generally, might simply be defined as coming into communion with, or the understanding that there exists in this world, something greater than one’s self. 

Standing on a mountaintop or next to an ocean can have that effect on a person.  Writers and philosophers have generally had difficulty defining this experience in a single sentence—in fact, Thoreau’s Walden is nothing more than an extended essay that attempts to do just this.  However, there is general agreement in books, essays, blogs, and research on this subject, to suggest a few commonalities experienced by anyone who has done this.  These experiences diminish the self, or ego, through an expansion of the perception of the physical world.  This widening of perception may be referred to as awe, or a sense of wonder: the way we feel staring into the night sky, imagining all the worlds out there, the vast distance between stars, stellar nurseries, nebulae, planets, comets, blackholes, the edge of the universe.  This sense of wonder brings a subsequent sense of humility and perspective, coming to better understand one’s place in the world in which we live.  It’s hard to come to this realization this in the presence of other people, if only because in their presence we define ourselves in relation to them, even if that goes unnoticed. 

In bringing this essay to a close, I would like to iterate just a few distinctions.  One is to keep in mind the difference between being lonely and being alone.  Isolation, especially when in conjunction with poor mental health, addiction, depression, may very well be detrimental.  If you know someone struggling, ask how they are doing.  You will be amazed at how much a kind word, sometimes nothing more, can help.  The other distinction is that while I have stated that climbing a mountain or meditating upon the ocean or a forest-river is not necessarily a religious experience, it may well be.  That’s okay.  In many ways, books such as Walden, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, or Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, make synonymous God and Nature (Nature with a capital “N”).  I’m not certain that the way in which we think of it really matters; when we focus on epiphanic experience the language tends to be the same.  In the Bible, God speaks to Job from the whirlwind, firing a litany of invectives at Job’s ignorance: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?”  “Who set its measurements?”  “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, and caused the dawn to know its place?” “Have you understood the expanse of the earth?  “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars, stretching his wings toward the south?”  In the moving meditation that is hiking, does Nature not inspire these very questions within our inner-most selves?  And might we not come to the very same conclusion as Job in the face of such magnitude?  “Behold, I am insignificant” (Job 38-40). 

Get out there everyone!

Works Cited

Long, C. R., and J. R. Averill. “Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, vol. 33, no. 1, Mar. 2003, pp. 21–44. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1468-5914.00204.

“The Lost Art of Alone Time.” Psychology Today, vol. 50, no. 2, Mar. 2017, p. 13. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=121257923&site=ehost-live.

Sreenivasan, Shoba and Linda E. Weinberger.  “The Benefits of Spending Time Alone.”  Psychology Today, 12/02/2018.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-nourishment/201812/the-benefits-spending-time-alone

Storr, A. (1989). Solitude: A return to the self. New York: Ballantine.

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