Despite increasing reports of the “loneliness epidemic” over the last few years, some experts advise that intentionally practicing solitude can offer a host of benefits.
Thuy-vy Nguyen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University, says that solitude can help regulate emotions, which has a calming effect that can help foster social connection. “We have some evidence to show that valuing solitude doesn’t really hurt your social life, in fact, it might add to it,” she says.
Emily Roberts, a therapist, suggests that time alone can build confidence and offer a way to explore new interests and ideas without inhibition. One study reveals that teens are less self-conscious when alone.
Neuroscience backs the idea that solitude can be beneficial as well. In one study, participants who alternated between brainstorming with a group and brainstorming alone had a greater output than those who only brainstormed in the group. Another study found that two hours of silence per day stimulated the growth of new cells in the hippocampi of mice.
Solitude vs. Loneliness
Many reports, studies, and surveys over the past few years have discussed a growing trend of loneliness in the United States, even as our world becomes more connected. The concerns are real and should be taken seriously by employers, especially as the holiday season approaches. This time of year might be ideal for offering in-the-office days for remote workers or informal gatherings where employees can connect with others.
However, it’s also important for employers to recognize the need for and encourage healthy solitude. Whereas “loneliness” implies an unwilling separation from others—something imposed by society as a physical punishment, an ostracization, or just a sense of not belonging to a community — “solitude” implies an intentional separation.
Historically, many religious and artistic movements have encouraged some degree of solitude for purposes of self-reflection, creativity, enlightenment, or deepening a connection with the divine. Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani sought solitude in a cabin in Japan, writing that “[a]t last I had time to have time.” Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Buddha, Thomas Merton, Virginia Woolf, and many other writers, thinkers, artists, and philosophers have cultivated solitude.
Our modern, highly connected culture tends to discourage solitude or even to suggest that any degree of solitude is harmful. People work in open offices, stay connected by mobile devices at all hours of the day, and go home to urban environments full of noise. Matthew Bowker of Medaille College suggests that solitude is “more devalued than it has been in a long time.”
The Benefits of Solitude
Seeking solitude in a loud world is something that doesn’t come naturally to many people; even retreating to a coffee shop or a park by oneself brings with it the potential of interaction with others. However, for those who are willing to really find genuine quiet spaces where it’s possible to turn off the outside world, there are a host of benefits:
- A break from social media, e-mail, and phone calls: One study showed that people who “unplug” after work report feeling fresher and more prepared for work the following day. Another study of undergraduates showed that limiting social media use can decrease symptoms of loneliness and depression.
- Improved creativity: A 2014 study suggests that being “bored” can improve creativity. It can be challenging to find space for boredom in a hyper-connected world; seeking solitude allows the brain to have the space for boredom.
- Improved productivity: One study found that people who work in closed offices are more productive than those in an open floor plan. While it’s important to encourage collaboration and teamwork in the office, it might be good for productivity to offer quiet spaces where employees can work uninterrupted.
While employers can and should continue to offer support and assistance for those experiencing loneliness or anxiety, they should also recognize and encourage a healthy cultivation of solitude—and give employees the space to occasionally unplug.