The lost art of solitude

Last updated on 
July 29, 2020

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COVID-19 lockdown forced millions of us to adapt to a whole new way of living overnight. But in between juggling frustration and uncertainty with trying to develop new skills and hobbies, many of us found a new simplicity in the way we live. Despite fears of becoming disconnected or bored, many of us found, to our surprise, that we were more productive, focused and at peace.

This wasn’t loneliness; this was solitude – something that is increasingly elusive in our distracted “always-on” society. While often painted in a bad light, lockdown gave us an unexpected lesson in the lost art of solitude and the importance of being comfortable in our own company.

What is solitude?

When we think of solitude, most of us tend to think of it as a physical phenomenon – something you find in woodland cabins, mountain tops or silent retreats. But according to experts, we’re seeing solitude all wrong. It isn’t a physical state of being, it’s a mental state – which means, technically, we can find solitude wherever we are. It isn’t about being somewhere quiet, it’s just about having a quiet mind; stepping away from the output of others and focusing on your own thoughts.

“The right way to define ‘solitude’ is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.”
Cal Newport, Georgetown University professor

In today’s world, we’re continually flooded with information and communication – and most of it is all from other people. Whether we’re reading emails at work, skimming messages on Slack, watching a film, listening to podcasts, scrolling through the latest news, it’s all outside noise. It’s actually nothing to do with us. While it’s important to feel connected and in the loop, the problem is that by living in a culture of perpetual distraction, we rarely get time alone. And having time alone with our thoughts is vital for processing the world around us and enabling meaningful insight.

If you’re someone who prefers the company of others to being alone, the idea of solitude can still sound a little unappealing, but solitude doesn’t have to be a way of life, or even a main component of it. What’s described here is the idea of healthy solitude – when you’re free from the influence of others’ minds. You can find the balance between company and solitude by going for a walk in the woods or sitting on the beach by yourself – but because solitude is a mental state, you don’t even have to leave your home. Just stepping back from the noise of the outside world and switching your phone off is finding solitude.

The benefits of solitude

Being able to focus on your own thoughts without distraction has many important benefits. Without solitude, creative insight will remain elusive – and doing any deep work will be near impossible. Being in a state of solitude allows you to focus completely on one task at a time, something that has an enormously powerful effect on performance. According to experts, when you’re trying to focus on several tasks rather than just one, your performance can drop by 50%.

According to Harvard Business Review, in our distracted world, solitude is a competitive advantage. It is intrinsically linked to flow states and deep work, which is touted as “the world’s ultimate job skill”. The “depth philosophies” used to practice deep work are effectively different grades of solitude to suit a variety of different lifestyles. According to professor Cal Newport – who coined the deep work theory – accessing solitdue enables us to push our cognitive capacity to its limit: “It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

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But the benefits of solitude run much deeper than just enhanced productivity. Being in a state of solitude is the only time you can properly process deep and complicated feelings, or reflect on your own life and what you want from it. We live in an politicized, ever-changing society that continuously provokes our emotions, and we need to allow our minds time and space to work through our feelings on its own. This is why people often gain clarity while going on a walk, driving a car, or even taking a bath: because we’re alone, with nothing but our thoughts for company.

Solitude also contributes to our sense of self and mental wellbeing, and studies show that just 15 minutes of solitude can help deactivate stress. Four further studies in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that solitude alters the intensity of our inner experience, heightening low-key emotions while at the same time minimising stronger feelings. This suggests that solitude can be used to help regulate emotions and find a sense of inner peace.

Practicing “rich solitude”

The great thing about solitude is that everyone can benefit from it, regardless of the approach they take. You can choose to spend months alone in a remote cabin, if you want... or you can simply turn your phone off for 15 minutes and go for a stroll. Or, just sit and be (boredom is actually good for you!). But in order to reap the benefits, you actually need to protect space for solitude.

There are only so many hours in a day, and creating time for your own head can easily get pushed aside by new requests, family, friends, and entrenched habits. Try scheduling regular deep breaks throughout the day, reclaim “trapped” periods of time spent waiting for self-reflection, and be more proactive about how you spend your downtime. Opportunities for solitude and quiet reflection are all around us, but it’s up to us to grab them.

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