Solitude, what does it mean to be alone with yourself?
Blog by Roberto Chiodelli
“The most intimate relationship we will have in our entire lifetime is with ourselves” (Jamie Ridler)
According to studies, adult humans spend approximately 29% of their waking time alone (Larson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Graef, 1982). How are we relating to ourselves in that 1/3 of our lifetime? Do we know how to spend time with ourselves in a way that promotes growth and life-long learning?
It seems doing anything is preferable to being alone with our thoughts. One American study (Wilson et al., 2014) indicated that most participants preferred to give themselves an electric shock rather than remain silent for 15 minutes. This illuminates a strong drive away from experiencing aloneness. Yet are there other ways to understand the “alone” experience and even use this time to help us move towards the things we value in life?
There are many everyday distractions that serve the same function as the electric shock in Wilson’s study. Our technology provides ample opportunity to distract from feeling lonely and most of the social media apps are about “connection”. Paradoxically these “disconnected” connections often leave us feeling more lonely.
Loneliness is a subjective matter, since we can be surrounded by people, even good friends, and still feel lonely. On the other hand, we can be away from others and experience genuine, embodied contentment.
There are clearly different ways to be “alone”.
Below we clarify our language use for the inter-related concepts of Loneliness, Aloneness and Solitude.
Loneliness is a negative state in which the individual perceives dissatisfaction of basic interpersonal and social relationships. It is related to painful emotions, and often arrives with sadness and boredom.
Aloneness is a neutral state, in which there is communicative isolation. This means that you might be surrounded by people, but not interacting with them. Aloneness, though, carries no emotion; it’s just a fact.
Solitude is a positive state, it is a type of chosen aloneness, during which personality development and creativity may arise (Galanaki, 2004). In this state, the individual is not avoiding social interaction due to social anxiety or preference. He/ She enjoys the experience of spending aloneness time and can use it to explore himself/ herself.
Reflection: Pause for a moment now to reflection on your own experience of spending time alone. When were you last alone? Was the experience positive or negative? Were you experiencing loneliness or solitude?
How are these states different for you (in the body? In the mind?)
Most of us are not taught how to cultivate the capacity of being with ourselves and the topic is under-researched. It is important to note that not everyone is ready to spend quality time with themselves (e.g. someone suffering with depression or anxiety). When the mental monkeys are rampaging, it can be quite difficult to be alone. However, a positive experience with ourselves (solitude) may bring benefits such as Freedom (from constraints and to engage in desired activities), Creativity, Intimacy with oneself, and Spirituality (Long & Averill, 2003) (see infographic below).
Loneliness is now a worldwide topic of concern. How strange that as the planet’s population grows to unsustainable numbers, we are plagued with an epidemic of loneliness.
A few months ago, a Minister for Loneliness was nominated in the United Kingdom. A survey conducted in 2017 detected the prevalence of loneliness in 9 million Britons, which is equivalent to 14% of the population. It is only a small step from loneliness to depression. Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide (WHO, 2017). Among other actions, the Minister intends to diminish social isolation through programs that cultivate conversation, friendship and empathy; the foundation of communities where people can meet; and the organization of voluntary work accessing homes of the lonely citizens. Apart from looking for solutions on the problem, preventive measures also can, and should, be taken.
Fortunately, such preventive programs have proliferated in the UK and in other countries such as USA and Canada during the past few years. Interventions based on Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, Empathy and Social Skills are available in different contexts (e.g. education, healthcare, criminal justice, communities and the workplace). But there is still much to do – starting with each one of us. Making eye contact, taking time with others (even strangers), being interested ……these are some small actions that can make all the difference. The next time you think “I haven’t got time for this” when someone is trying to connect with you, see if you can pause and stay even a few seconds longer. You don’t know the ripple effect this small action might have.
The best way to really see and understand others is by taking care of ourselves first. Meditation is my choice to support my mental well-being. Meditation is a way to learn how to just be with yourself. It can be harder than it sounds, but with patience and practice, becomes possible, and even enjoyable. You may need to detox on the technology in small steps. As Orianna Fielding from the Digital Detox Company suggests:
“Connection is inevitable, distraction is a choice.”
The intention is to develop a relationship to your inner self which has the following features: kindness, mindfulness and self-compassion. Allowing yourself space and time to pause, reflect, imagine, create and really get to know your own body and mind is the best route to developing solitude skills that will allow you to benefit from being alone.
Check out the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment.
Roberto Chiodelli is a Brazilian Psychologist (CRP 07/17796) and Body Therapist who is trying to have a better relationship with himself on a daily basis. Master of Clinical Psychology (focus on Mindfulness) and currently taking a Psychology PhD at the University of Algarve/ Portugal.
Larson, R., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Graef, R. (1982). Time alone in daily experience: Loneliness or renewal? In L. A. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research, and therapy. New York: Wiley, pp. 40–53.
Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., … & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192), 75–77. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1250830
Galanaki, E. (2004). Are children able to distinguish among the concepts of aloneness, loneliness, and solitude? International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28(5), 435–443. http://doi.org/10.1080/01650250444000153
Long, C. R., & Averill, J. R. (2003). Solitude: An exploration of benefits of being alone. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 33(1), 21-44. http://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5914.00204
World Health Organization [WHO]. (2017). “Depression: let’s talk” says WHO, as depression tops list of causes of ill health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2017/world-health-day/en/