I 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.
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