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.
Looking at the history of solitude in spirituality and creativity, University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologists called solitude “a vital social phenomenon.” Yet solitude is something we generally suck at. In a study conducted by scientists at the University of Virginia, a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose to shock themselves rather than be alone with their thoughts. Imagine that. “You can either sit here without me in the room,” said the researcher, “or I’ll stand here with you, but you have to press this red button that sends high levels of electric voltage through your veins.” And the participants responded with … “hmmm, why don’t you stay put and I’ll just …” Zap.
Our general discomfort with solitude may be due to how society frames it. Consider how we discipline children: time out. Or how we punish prisoners: solitary confinement. This tradition, Bowker thinks, may have cued us to believe that normalcy is found through others and that being alone is punishment.
Covid-19 lockdowns were likely the first time that many people experienced extended alone time. This unfamiliarity with being with ourselves could perhaps explain why self-medication through eating, drinking, porn watching, and drug use all spiked during the pandemic, according to research.
As I stood on the tundra, I thought about how I behave around others. I’m often wary to be unconnected for too long and my default behavior is to shape my personality to suit what other people will positively respond to. Sometimes it’s like I live my whole life as a reaction to others. Solitude is anti that. It’s about setting social inhibitions aside and feeling free to think and do what we truly want.
“There are a lot of great pleasures you can get out of the experience of being alone with yourself,” said Bowker. In solitude, you can find the unfiltered version of you. People often have breakthroughs where they tap into how they truly feel about a topic and come to some new understanding about themselves, said Bowker. Then you can take your realizations out into the social world, he says. “Building the capacity to be alone probably makes your interactions with others richer. Because you’re bringing to the relationship a person who’s actually got stuff going on in the inside and isn’t just a connector circuit that only thrives off of others.”
The surprising downsides of social connections
The upsides of solitude aren’t as popular a research topic as the downsides of loneliness, but more science is backing solitude’s positive properties. Embracing solitude has been shown to improve feelings of intimacy, spirituality, happiness, productivity, creativity, empathy, and decrease self-consciousness.
“Social connection is obviously critical,” said Bowker. “But it can be dangerous if your social connections ever go away and you don’t have yourself to fall back on. If you develop that capacity to be alone, then instead of feeling lonely, you could see solitude as an opportunity to have a meaningful and enjoyable time to get to know yourself a little better. To essentially build a relationship with yourself. I know this sounds cheesy, but it’s critical. I think a goal we should all have is to try to transform feelings of loneliness into feelings of rich solitude.”
I miss those quiet Arctic moments, but I’ve taken their lessons back home to get to know myself a little better and become less of a reactor circuit. I don’t miss the grizzlies though.