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Dr. Thuy-vy T. Nguyen

Solitude: What we think we know, and what ain't so

7 minutes read

December 10,2020

If you look up readings on solitude, you are likely to find two types of articles: one type condemns its negative effects on mental health while the other defends its benefits for creativity, self-discovery, and relaxation. So, instead of adding to the debate about whether solitude is good or bad, I want to highlight one issue that isn't talked about enough: what exactly does solitude contribute to our daily, ordinary life and our mental health?

To answer this question, I will first clarify a few misconceptions that we often have about solitude. Then, I will try to resolve a few claims about it that continue to be re-enforced by popular culture despite lacking supporting empirical evidence. In closing, I will reveal the big finale that should not be a secret to anyone but somehow remains elusive in our conversations.

First, the misconceptions

In my review of the literature on solitude, I have observed that many of the apparent benefits are drawn from stories of extraordinary and exceptional people. Creative minds like Eugène Delacroix or Jane Austen often spoke about the contribution of solitude to their work. Mahatma Gandhi praised solitude as "a catalyst for innovation", and Albert Einstein credits many of his discoveries to time spent alone, which nurtured his maturity and offered space for self-reflection. Other less prominent figures, yet no less extraordinary, are Robert Kull, Christopher Knight, and Sara Maitland; they chronicled the years they voluntarily withdrew from society to seek wisdom-filled solitude in the wilderness. While these stories are inspiring, they paint a romanticised picture of solitude reserved for those with a phenomenal ability to benefit from extended periods of reclusive existence.

Yet, solitude is a familiar experience in the life of an ordinary person. In a study conducted in the late 1990s, it was estimated that an average adult in the United States spends one-third of their waking hours alone [1]. This number is bound to increase if we look at the rising numbers of single-person households in many developed nations such as Germany, the Netherlands, the US, and the United Kingdom [2] [3]. On a typical week, it's rare to go several days without having a few moments of being alone. Some people spend time alone running errands and doing chores, some read, while others go out for a walk, or catch up on work and assignments. There are times in solitude when we sit in silence and reflect on our lives, think about plans for the evening and weekends, or reminisce about our past.

Despite how often solitude happens in our daily life, when people hear the word "solitude", it is usually associated with "loneliness" and "isolation". It's important to highlight the difference between the negative experiences that arise in unwanted solitude – periods of aloneness that we are forced into, such as when social plans are cancelled or when friends reject our invitation to hang out – from the positive experiences that come with chosen solitude. Many studies have shown that choice is an important ingredient of positive solitude [4]–[7].

Second, the claims without clear evidence 

There are many flavours of solitude, and empirical research has only begun to explore key ingredients that determine its benefits and drawbacks. For example, people have found solitude enjoyable and positive when it contributes to their creativity, self-discovery, and inner peace [8]. In contrast, negative experiences in solitude are often associated with feeling lonely, judged, or excluded by other people [9]. It's important to understand that the majority of our insights about solitude are drawn from 'correlational studies', which restrict us from concluding that these experiences are caused by solitude [6]. We could argue that these positive and negative experiences could occur regardless of whether the person was alone or not.

For instance, let's talk about creativity. We have heard many tales of creative minds secluding themselves to pursue the arts. Correlational studies have shown that individuals with creative personalities have more positive outlooks toward solitude [8], [10]. But just because creative people like solitude does not mean that solitude is good for creativity. Even today, there is no clear evidence to show that creative people spend more time alone than the average person, nor that people become more creative when they spend time alone. At best, evidence from experimental studies have had mixed results. Some earlier work suggested that individuals produce more ideas when working alone [11], but more recent studies show that people generate more creative solutions when working in groups [12]. The many ways of assessing creativity may be the reason behind these polarities! The same limitation applies to literature that links solitude to self-discovery. There has not been any published evidence to show that the activities and psychological processes activated during the time spent alone helps someone "discover" themselves better than the next person.

Finally, the obvious truth (with a few caveats)

Filtering out the signal from the noise, the only reliable claim we can make about the benefit of solitude so far is that it is a space for the mind to rest. In a survey of more than 18,000 people from 134 countries, a large percentage of people believe that being alone, or activities that are often done alone, are the most restful [13]. Studies have also shown that participants endorsed less 'emotionally charged' words related to arousing states such as excitement, enthusiasm, anger, or anxiety after sitting alone for only 15 minutes [4].

Imagine a day when you go from one meeting to another, deal with frustrated colleagues and difficult customers, on-and-on without a break. Then compare this to a long weekend at a friend's wedding celebration that goes from one ritual to another, bursting at the seams with spirit and constantly filled with high-energy interactions. Both of these are characteristic of high arousal states; the former usually leads to frustration and anxiety, while the latter stirs exhilaration and jubilation. It is obvious that in the first example, one would need an escape from all the negative feelings, but even in the second example, a few moments away from the crowd is treasured by many. This is what solitude can offer.

Yet, not all solitude is restful. It's an experience filled with caveats and individual differences that we can explore with curiosity. Some people are more predisposed to distress and negative thoughts than others, such as those with mental health risks who experience loneliness or emotional instability. For example, bulimic patients display more symptoms when alone at home [14], and lonely people tend to drink more when they crave another's presence [15]. Further, being alone can be difficult on certain days. For example, on days where the workload is high, people have found themselves unable to switch off after work [16]. This effect is likely to spill over to our solitary time. Finally, many people find unstructured solitude (empty time when a person is alone and unoccupied) challenging and unenjoyable [17]. Here, many people tend to fill this time with fruitless distractions, such as mindlessly scrolling through their devices, and are unable to engage in fulfilling activities.

Solitude is best when it is chosen.

There are times when we need others, and there are times when we need time for ourselves. Knowing exactly what solitude does for our mental health allows us to experience, understand, and seek it out when the time and situation calls for it.

In a world that is getting more crowded and more connected with every breath we take, understanding (and not misunderstanding) solitude can give us the fresh air we so often seek.

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  2. K. D. M. Snell, "The rise of living alone and loneliness in history," Soc. Hist., vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 2–28, 2017, doi: 10.1080/03071022.2017.1256093.
  3. E. Ortiz-Ospina, "The rise of living alone: how one-person households are becoming increasingly common around the world," Our World in Data, 2019.
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  6. J. C. Lay, T. Pauly, P. Graf, A. Mahmood, and C. A. Hoppmann, "Choosing Solitude: Age Differences in Situational and Affective Correlates of Solitude-Seeking in Midlife and Older Adulthood," Journals Gerontol. - Ser. B Psychol. Sci. Soc. Sci., vol. 75, no. 3, pp. 483–493, 2020, doi: 10.1093/geronb/gby044.
  7. J. C. Lay, T. Pauly, P. Graf, J. C. Biesanz, and C. A. Hoppmann, "By myself and liking it? Predictors of distinct types of solitude experiences in daily life," J. Pers., vol. 87, no. 3, pp. 633–647, 2019, doi: 10.1111/jopy.12421.
  8. C. R. Long, M. Seburn, J. R. Averill, and T. A. More, "Solitude Experiences: Varieties, Settings, and Individual Differences," Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull., pp. 578–583, 2003, doi: 10.1177/0146167203251535.
  9. R. J. Coplan, L. Rose-Krasnor, M. Weeks, A. Kingsbury, M. Kingsbury, and A. Bullock, "Alone is a crowd: Social motivations, social withdrawal, and socioemotional functioning in later childhood," Dev. Psychol., vol. 49, no. 5, pp. 861–875, 2013, doi: 10.1037/a0028861.
  10. V. Thomas and M. Azmitia, "Motivation matters: Development and validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale – Short Form (MSS-SF)," J. Adolesc., vol. 70, no. November, pp. 33–42, 2019, doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2018.11.004.
  11. M. Diehl and W. Stroebe, "Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle," J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 53, no. 3, pp. 497–509, 1987, doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.3.497.
  12. P. B. Paulus and M. Dzindolet, "Social influence, creativity and innovation," Soc. Influ., vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 228–247, 2008, doi: 10.1080/15534510802341082.
  13. C. Hammond, "How being alone may be the key to rest," BBC Radio 4, 2016.
  14. R. Larson and C. Johnson, "Bulimia: Disturbed patterns of solitude," Addict. Behav., vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 281–290, 1985, doi: 10.1016/0306-4603(85)90009-7.
  15. S. N. Arpin, C. D. Mohr, and D. Brannan, "Having Friends and Feeling Lonely: A Daily Process Examination of Transient Loneliness, Socialization, and Drinking Behavior," Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull., vol. 41, no. 5, pp. 615–628, 2015, doi: 10.1177/0146167215569722.
  16. S. Sonnentag and U. V. Bayer, "Switching off mentally: Predictors and consequences of psychological detachment from work during off-job time," J. Occup. Health Psychol., vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 393–414, 2005, doi: 10.1037/1076-8998.10.4.393.
  17. N. Buttrick et al., "Cross-Cultural Consistency and Relativity in the Enjoyment of Thinking Versus Doing," J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 2018, doi: 10.1037/pspp0000198.
Written By
Dr. Thuy-vy T. Nguyen

Dr. Thuy-vy Thi Nguyen is currently an Assistant Professor of Social Quantitative Psychology at Durham University. Her research focuses on people's experiences during time spent alone and explores individual differences, contextual and motivational antecedents that might either negatively impact or improve these experiences.

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