Is Solitude Really Good for Your Mental Health?

Whether we're driven to over-socialize by the fear of being alone, or pushed to isolate due to overwhelm we need to understand the cost and benefit of the ancient practice of solitude.

September 11, 2015
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I recently looked into booking a trip for myself that I intended to take by myself. I like traveling alone, and I’m not afraid to go on an adventure solo. However, when I inquired about pricing I was being asked to pay an additional fee for a single room. I get the extra cost of having one to a room versus two, but I was forced to confront something that I had always known. In our culture we reward and encourage pairs, but when we journey alone we pay a premium for it.

I’ve done a lot of reading on solitude, loneliness, being single and being separate. I have also explored my own fears of being alone that strongly surfaced after the ending of my twenty-year marriage. Terrified of feeling alone combined with the humiliation of being alone left me in a pretty dark place.

Generally people avoid being alone due to fear and the risk of judgment. Many of us would rather be in bad company, tired and depleted than to look like an alienated loser. It’s no surprise that we avoid being alone and associate it with loss, rejection, loneliness, and a whole host of negative experiences when we live in a culture that promotes and rewards couples and family more than it does solitude.

Confusing loneliness and being alone is a big part of the confusion when it comes to this topic. Loneliness is an organic experience that we all feel at times in our lives. It usually surfaces after a loss or when our support systems are lacking, but we should expect to experience it on and off throughout the lifespan. It’s possible to feel lonely when alone, but it’s also possible to feel lonely in a group or even a marriage. We can also have moments of feeling alone in the world when it feels like no one understands what we’re going through.

Being alone can be as much a choice as it can be circumstantial. We can end up alone, but we can also choose to spend time in solitude for our own wellbeing. Solitude often just happens in our lives as well. Reading a book on the couch, taking an extra few minutes in the shower and even sitting in traffic create moments of solitude.

Pros and Cons

Spending time alone provides opportunity for deep personal reflection, and it also affords you the chance to rejuvenate and re-energize. Being around other people can be draining even for the most gregarious extrovert, and we all need time to replenish.

Spending time alone is not only an ancient practice among Buddhist monks, it has also become a prescription for many symptoms and mental health issues. Stressed out executives are finding great value in doing silent retreats and over-worked caregivers get the rest they need by spending time in solitude.

Just like a computer we need to shut down our brains for even short periods of time to get back to a place of clarity.

Spending time alone can sometimes be a negative practice particularly for people who are depressed and feel the tendency to isolate. Human beings are wired for relationships so we all need to have some form of connection in our lives. If being alone becomes more of a defense and an avoidant behavior than a way to improve wellbeing then it’s probably not the best practice. The driving force behind the time alone is good indicator as to whether it’s a healthy choice or a maladaptive behavior.

Fit or Flop

Overall spending time alone or in solitude is a good idea. Being alone feeds the soul and heals the heart, and it provides the opportunity to become quiet enough to listen to your own thoughts and feelings. It’s an essential part of our wellbeing to take time out and away from the daily barrage of input that overwhelms our minds to maintain the greatest sense of wellbeing.

As an individualistic culture we need to be mindful of our intention behind the seeking of solitude. We have a tendency to use time alone as an escape from social obligation unlike in the Buddhist culture where solitude is seen as an important and welcomed way to become evolved or enlightened. Being aware of intention is an important part of the process, and will ultimately have impact on the level of benefit that comes with the time spent alone.

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