Yes, spending time alone can be good for you

Yes, spending time alone can be good for you
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Last week, the BBC published a piece entitled, “The benefits of spending time alone.” Many, who read the article, scratched their heads, wondering “Wait, we were told that loneliness was detrimental to our health. What gives, and why are you changing course?”

As a psychologist, I think it’s important for everyone to understand the differences between loneliness and aloneness. In addition, we should all know the tremendous benefits one can receive from some quality time to tune out and turn in

Yes, it’s true. Loneliness stinks. It’s that cold, aching, longing inside. It's feeling painfully disconnected. For whatever reason, we want fellowship, but there’s an unavailability of others, coupled with our inability to feel attached beyond our Internet connection. Loneliness and social isolation are associated with many negative psychological and biological effects. Chronic loneliness is linked to depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as early mortality

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But, loneliness is very different from solitary time, or what has been referred to as “momentary solitude.”

Humans are social creatures. So when we seek solace from others, this might be viewed in a negative light. Let’s say you want to sit by yourself one day a week in your company’s lunchroom. Your co-workers, unfortunately, might wonder what’s wrong with you by searching for a ‘reason’ you are taking time for yourself when typically eating is considered a social time. They might think you’re depressed, angry or even antisocial. But, these labels are simply not true, and perhaps even unkind. Giving other people or ourselves those inaccurate messages prevents growth. Time for reflection and reconstitution of the constant influx of information throughout the day is crucial.

When we’re around other people, no matter how close we are to them, there are expectations of politeness and pressures to be favorable. And, time spent with others can be taxing. Everyone needs time off stage, an escape from the roles we’re expected to play, a release from our public persona, away from scrutiny and demands.  

There are even several benefits, or what are called “self-enhancing” functions of alone time. In general, when people voluntarily spend time alone, they counterintuitively report higher levels of well-being. For example, in a recent study of first-year college students in the United States and Canada, approaching solitary time for healthy reasons was related to greater self-esteem. And, we see similar findings across the lifespan. In a large Internet survey of young, middle-aged and older adults, spending time alone enhanced positive mood.  

So, if someone seeks a little break, some time to recharge, quiet room for reflection or concentration, this is not indicative of ill-being. If we get this chance to be apart from others, we might also be able to shake a bit of bad feelings, find some inner peace and engage in a little self-discovery. On top of all that good stuff, most of us report that after being alone, we return to our connections with others feeling more cheerful.

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In the bestselling book, "Solitude: A Return to the Self," British psychiatrist, Anthony Storr challenged the myth that the center of human existence and the only path to happiness, was in constant connection with other people. He reminded us that there are brilliant individuals from Beethoven to Beatrix Potter whose lives beautifully illustrate how solitude can have a positive impact on one’s well-being and productivity. And, he argued, pretty convincingly, that spending time alone wasn’t only for geniuses. Every person can be enriched by passing time alone. 

An American psychologist Ester Schaler Buccholz took this idea a step further. In her book, The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment, she draws on biology, anthropology, philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis. She reasoned that alone time is not only beneficial, it is essential. Imperative for both children and adults’ development. You can think of it like this. We give our kids a time out to reconstitute and return to social interactions in a better state. Adults need their alone time to do the same. Schaler Buccholz contended that it was a lack of solitude, not an abundance of it, which contributed to many health dependencies and disorders. 

The ways we spend our alone time varies. Not only by age, life stage and living situation, but by interests and possibly gender. For instance, the amount of time kids and adolescents spend alone is small compared to the time that older adults spend by themselves. Those of us in significant dating or marital relationships, with caregiving responsibilities to kids or elders and those with high powered jobs, often can’t get as much time alone. Some of us like to be productive in our alone time — reading, writing, creating. Others just like to veg — listening to music, daydreaming, or watching TV. 

For sure, there are cultural differences in which solitude is accepted or promoted. But, for those who are part of this individualist world, which pretty much dominates American mainstream culture, we require time alone. While alone time may naturally occur, at other  times, we may need to create it.

Of course, each of us has to determine the optimal daily amount of alone time required for our good functioning. Be kind to your lone self and see how alone time may help you feel rejuvenated and able to feel more connected and present when with others. May each of us find the right amount of space, whether brief moments or extended hours.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.