The idea of being alone – right alone, without social media and just someone’s thoughts about society – is so alien to us that we often see it as a form of punishment. The children are sent to a naughty step, the prisoners to the separation ward.
historically, however, some of the greatest thinkers of history have used periods of loneliness to create their greatest achievements. Sir Isaac Newton, for example, a previously inconspicuous Cambridge student, forever changed the planet’s understanding of mathematics and physics after a period of loneliness on his family’s farm.
Scientifically, the whole area of loneliness is very neglected. But psychologists are slowly discovering that loneliness is neither a form of punishment nor a reserve of intellectual giants. Instead, it is a valuable resource that can help all of us not only think better, but feel better and live better.
As Newton has shown, loneliness provides time and space for clear thinking without distractions and for creative thinking. Freed from the demands and obligations of academic life in Cambridge, Newton’s mind was free to reflect on the mysteries of the universe.
Of course, we don’t all have to think about such great ideas. But we all have things to think about. Problems to be solved. Decisions to be made.
Periods of loneliness also allow us – especially when we are younger – to develop our individuality and independence. Loneliness can help us to start dealing with some of the bigger problems and worries we carry with us, without ever solving them.
But mostly, loneliness offers emotional respite. Being close to people – even those we love – can be difficult, frustrating and exhausting. Constantly following one’s own words and actions and suppressing one’s own needs for the needs of others takes its toll. Loneliness can take us away from it all.
“It’s an interesting thing in solitude,” says Dr. Virginia Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at Middlebury College in Vermont. “While it may be a physical separation – where we are literally withdrawing from the social world, I tend to think of loneliness primarily as a psychological experience – where our attention is turned inward.
“So, we could be in a busy cafe, but we are in our own world. Maybe we are reading a novel or we are just wrapped up in our own thoughts. Maybe we are wandering in a city park, dreaming or thinking about a problem. Everything else disappears, and we are with ourselves. ”
So if you don’t have to be physically isolated, what exactly is loneliness? “Loneliness is a purposeful state of loneliness,” explains Professor Michelle Gordon of Pennsylvania State University. “There are times when we are alone. But loneliness is a choice. You have made a purposeful decision to separate yourself from other people, from technology, from everyday events, to spend time with your own mind.
“Yes, you can enjoy solitude in a crowd. You could be in a large crowd in the park, but you choose not to make eye contact or enter into casual conversations. But if you are alone at home with the TV on, it is not really loneliness because you have this constant stimulus in the background. It really is the concept you have chosen to be with yourself and your mind. “
So what do you do in solitude? Sit in silence? meditate? Chant? According to Dr. Thomas, it is up to the individual what he wants to gain from the experience. However, she found that solitary activities usually fall into one of two camps: self-care and self-discovery.
“In the self-care category, you have people looking for solitude to take care of themselves,” she says. “They feel exhausted by their obligations or are too socially stimulated. Now they want to be alone and full. The specific activity they perform depends on that person. Maybe you are a person who practices yoga. Maybe you’re reading a book. Maybe you’re cooking. You may want to spend time on a hobby that has a restorative effect.
For those in the self-discovery category, their activities will be decided by what they seek. Maybe they don’t even want to do anything. Maybe they just want to stop and think.
“Maybe there is a big life decision that we really need to think about, and we just need a little space to be able to sort out our thoughts and our feelings and make a decision,” says Dr. Thomas. “Or we have a relationship problem, so we have to release our emotions and sort them out. Maybe you want to do something creative or do spiritual practice. ” In short, any activity that is significant or enjoyable can be performed in solitude.
As for the frequency and duration of the period of loneliness, “it’s about finding your sweet spot,” says Dr. Thomas. “Once you know how much loneliness it takes to feel balanced, healthy and fulfilled, then you need it.
“I would say the hardest part is securing time for solitude,” says Dr. Thomas. “Let’s say you need two hours a week. If you do not include this in your weekly schedule and if you are a busy person with family and work responsibilities, that time will be stolen from you.
“I recommend that when you recognize that loneliness is important for your well-being, arrange a meeting with yourself. Put it on the family calendar and let people know you won’t be available. You will be available later – and then you will be a happier person – but in those two hours you need that time for me. “
Although loneliness offers many benefits, it can sometimes be a difficult experience. In the studies, participants said they felt restless and anxious – or simply bored.
According to psychologists, these experiences are not side effects of the process, but are part of one of the main functions of loneliness: emotional regulation.
“We live such hectic lives that our emotions are often put in the background, in favor of being productive or fulfilling our obligations,” says Dr. Thomas. “We put emotions and problems on hold – basically saying to ourselves, ‘I’ll deal with it later.’
“So, when we are finally left alone, these emotions or problems or memories that we kept away come to the surface. If you’re not ready for that, those initial moments – or even hours – of loneliness can be really uncomfortable. “
Far from being a signal to abandon loneliness, Dr. Thomas believes that these experiences should be explored: “My research has found that people who have the ability to make good use of loneliness know how to manage these difficult or disturbing emotions.
“The first thing they tend to do with emotions is to accept them, and be okay with feeling no matter how they feel. With experience, they have learned to believe that they will not drown in these feelings. They will not last forever.
“They are able to ask themselves, ‘Why do I feel so anxious?’ Why do I feel so sad? What are these feelings trying to tell me? Should I do something different? Should I make some decisions or take some action? ‘
“Healthy emotional regulation will lead you to that place of insight. For some people, the issue they are dealing with is too much for them, “says Dr. Thomas. “And one of the skills of loneliness is to know when you need to get out of loneliness and get help. It can be help from a friend – or help from a therapist or counselor. “
If loneliness is really so restorative, why don’t we all do it already? Well, humans are incredibly social creatures. We like to be close to other people, even if it can be stressful at times. We are also incredibly busy and are struggling to fulfill our existing business and family obligations.
However, Michelle Gordon believes that we as a society simply do not value loneliness. That in a world that now allows us to be permanently connected through technology, loneliness is still considered a form of punishment.
“I think it’s sad,” says Michelle, “but I did it myself. When my daughters were younger and I had to punish them, I would take away their technology and send them to their rooms. Loneliness should be the reward for good deeds. We should be able to tell the children, ‘You did well. So now you have time to switch off and really think about your achievement. ‘ But we use it as punishment. “We don’t teach people that it’s okay to be alone in your head.”
Gordon believes that we must recognize loneliness as it is: “a precious resource.” “Loneliness is incredibly important in our lives. We have to confirm that it is okay to take some time for ourselves and our thoughts. Not only is it okay – it’s also useful. I think everyone should practice five minutes of solitude a day. Just five minutes of separation from everything and thinking. ”