Don’t Forget How to Be Alone
Embrace whatever pandemic solitude remains—and, in the future, re-create it
I recently found myself standing alone on the Arctic tundra, over 100 miles from civilization. I spent a month up there reporting portions of my new book, The Comfort Crisis. There was no human around me for miles and miles. There were also no people “with” me through TV, podcasts, social media, email, or text messages.
The realization that I was in a rare state of supreme solitude was both unnerving and freeing. Unnerving because the frozen ground was littered with grizzly poop and if the weather were to change — and did often and quick out there — I’d be stranded for days. Freeing because without anyone else around I was completely unbeholden to any societal standards or needing to mold myself to the will of anyone but me. I was uncomfortable but untethered. The social narrative of how a man at 30-something should look, act, and carry himself didn’t hold up when I removed society from the story.
We’ve all heard of the negative health and happiness outcomes of America’s “loneliness epidemic.” Covid quarantines only heightened these concerns, and we should all strive to forge strong human bonds.
But in today’s increasingly hyperconnected and tribal society — where we define ourselves by the group or movement we belong to — it’s not a bad idea to occasionally be alone. As vaccines roll out and we slowly return to semi-normal life — restaurants, concerts, dinner parties — we should embrace these last moments of quarantine solitude. We should use them to be removed from and unaffected by the outside world, unidentified with anything. Figures like the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Lincoln, Mary Oliver, and more have all spoken highly of the benefits of solitude.
The psychological benefits of solitude
A growing field of scientists today think that these solitude-seekers were onto something. Building what researchers call “the capacity to be alone” may be as important as forging good relationships. “The capacity to be alone is essentially the ability to be alone with yourself and not feel uncomfortable or like you have to distract yourself,” Matthew Bowker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Medaille College, told me.