Throughout history, opportunities for solitude were built into a person’s daily life. There were no cell phones to look at while waiting for appointments or social media accounts to keep connected with friends when they were home alone. Solitude was often a person’s default mode.
In our ultra-connected society, this is no longer the case. Modern technology gives us the ability to fill our time and minds endlessly. There are many benefits to these technologies, but is there a hidden cost that we are paying?
What Solitude Really Is
Solitude is often referred to as a state of being alone without being lonely. This lovely definition of solitude conjures up images of sunsets on top of a mountain or leisurely walks along the beach. But in reality, we don’t need to be alone in a remote location to enjoy solitude. To complicate things more, sometimes being alone in and of itself does not result in solitude.
In the book Lead Yourself First, authors Kethledge and Erwin define solitude as “a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds”. In other words, solitude is when you are left alone with your own thoughts. It is more about your internal experience than what is going on around you.
You could have a rich sense of solitude while you drive through rush hour traffic on your way to work, wait in a long line at the grocery store, or go for a brief walk on a crowded street. Or you could lack a sense of solitude, even if you are in an ideal setting for an extended period of time, through the many distractions modern technology provides.
Why We Need Solitude in Our Lives
There are many reasons why spending time alone is worth the investment.
- Positively impacts relationships - In her book, The Call of Solitude, Ester Buchholz, Ph.D. says that solitude “is not necessarily a way to escape from bonding, for often we find our way back to someone else during alone contemplation, and forge stronger commitments.” As counterintuitive as it might seem, being alone can actually draw us closer to others.
- Promotes self-awareness - In this article, Hara Estropp Marano explains that solitude is the necessary counterpoint to intimacy. It gives us time to explore and know ourselves, allowing us to have a self worthy of sharing.
- Inspires creativity - I love how Derek Sivers, writer and founder of CDBaby, says that “silence is a great canvas for your thoughts.” Many great artists, scientists, writers, and spiritual leaders relied on regular times away from others. Great thinkers such as Hemingway, Da Vinci, Einstein, and Darwin all valued and practiced solitude regularly.
- Increases productivity - when you are working in solitude, you can get into a state of flow, where you are energized by being immersed fully in the task at hand. Sophie Leroy, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has found that people are less productive when constantly moving from one task to another rather than focusing on one thing at a time. She explains that transitioning to a new task requires you to stop thinking about the previous task. However, it is difficult to pull your attention away from these tasks. This creates what Leroy calls “attention residue” and make you less productive overall. (Why is it so hard to do my job? by Leroy)
- Assists with emotional regulation - a recent study found that just 15 minutes of solitude decreased the intensity of high-arousal feelings such as excitement, anger and anxiety. While there are certainly times to feel these emotions, solitude may be beneficial in bringing the intensity down when desired.
- Encourages moral courage - Kethledge and Erwin explains that it is through solitude that a leader gets “reassurance that what he is doing is right, that he is doing his best, that he is a good person notwithstanding what the moral critics say.”
- Health Benefits - According to Happiness for Dummies, solitude jumpstarts your parasympathetic nervous system. This branch of your nervous system calms you down and allows you to rest and digest. It boosts your immune system, allows your muscles relax, decreases your blood pressure, and slows your heart rate.
The Impact of Technology
It is important to take an honest look at the way technology prevents solitude in your life and how this lack of solitude impacts your heart, mind, & relationships. Like Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, states "technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you". In our society this can be extremely difficult to do.
As Buchholz says, “At no other time in history have people's minds and bodies been so accessible.” This is clearly shown in a study conducted by The University of California which estimated that Americans consumed about 1.3 trillion hours of information outside of work in 2008. That's an average of almost 12 hours per person per day! Just imagine the impact redirecting a portion of this time could make on our lives.
Newport thinks that most of the tips we use to take back control of our technological lives are insufficient. We simply can not gain enough ground without quite a bit of intentional effort. He encourages a 30-day “digital declutter” process which he outlines in his book. As part of the declutter he encourages us to “use digital tools that give you really big returns on small number of things that (you) really care about.”
How To Cultivate Solitude in the Midst of a Busy Life
While it may be wonderful to have extended periods of time in an isolated space for solitude, you can also cultivate solitude in the business of daily life.
- Wake up a little early to enjoy a few extra minutes to yourself. (Enjoy a few minutes with your own thoughts snuggled under the covers. Grab a cup of tea and sit by a window. Go for a walk alone with your thoughts.)
- Stay with your own thoughts as you drive to work. (Resist the urge to listen to music, talk on the phone, or finish an audiobook.)
- Take a lunch break by yourself. (Sit in your car, go for a walk, or treat yourself to lunch at a restaurant.)
- Spend 5 minutes simply being. (Turn all electronics off and sit in silence. This may seem uncomfortable at first, but try to stay with it.)
- Develop a practice of yoga, meditation, prayer, or mindfulness. (Even a few minutes of intentional focus can change your outlook.)
- Make a habit of doing something without your phone for at least 20 minutes each day.
- Be intentional about not checking emails or social media for the first hour of your day. When you are on social media, know your goal of using the media. Don’t just go on it to scroll endlessly. If you need to be on it for business or specific connections, go on, do what you intended to do, and get back off without using too much of your day.
- Select 1-3 times per day to log on to email or social media and only check at those times. It might help to disable phone notifications so that your phone isn’t constanting dinging and distracting you from being present in your task or in the moment.
Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement. -Alice Koller
With the many benefits of solitude, it is worth creating the opportunity for solitude. As we develop this practice we may realize that it is something we truly need and wonder how we ever survived without it!
Dr. Jamie will cook from Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo
Tuesday, Aug 6th, 7:00-8:30
Dubbed “The Paleo Bible” by readers, Practical Paleo explains how simply eating real, whole foods and avoiding processed, refined foods can improve our health—including reducing or even eliminating symptoms associated with common health disorders.
With 30-day meal plans, and tons of recipes, Practical Paleo has proven to be the resource people reach for again and again for information on healthy living, delicious recipes, and guidance on changing your diet to improve your health.
$35/demo + $15 shopping credit included!
*Call Prairie Path Books to reserve your spot now (630) 765-7455!