Alone, but not lonely: The rejuvenating benefits of solitude
Thursday, June 06, 2019
While loneliness is an epidemic in this country with half of Americans admitting they feel lonely, being alone isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s good.
I’m not talking about extreme isolation here, which can severely impact mental and physical health. Instead, I’m talking about good, old-fashioned quiet time.
You know, that feeling of space to breathe, to think and to daydream — letting our thoughts drift by without having to do anything with them.
However, with smartphones, smartwatches, tablets, computers, and most recently AI, are we ever really alone? A new field of study called interruption science, which studies how interruptions affect human performance, found that, on average, we are interrupted every 11 minutes and that it takes almost 25 minutes to recover from a phone call.
Now, more than any other time in history, has solitude become such a rare and valuable experience. To be truly alone, we must also be unplugged. No ringing, pings or notifications flashing. We must withdraw, however briefly, from all external contact.
It comes as no surprise then that being alone has a multitude of benefits. Here are just a few:
Spending time alone opens up the floodgates of inspiration and creative ideas. Have you ever noticed when you’re in the shower, driving in your car or cleaning your house that the ideas pour forth unimpeded? The reason for this is that you’re alone without distractions, making you more receptive to ideas that appear.
According to Susan Cain, author of the book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” “humans are such porous, social beings that when we surround ourselves with others, we automatically take in their opinions and aesthetics. To truly chart our own path or vision, we have to be willing to sequester ourselves, at least for some period of time.”
It’s impossible to get to know yourself, your values and your passions unless you spend time alone. Too much time with other people and external stimuli can leave you feeling lost, ungrounded and without a clear direction.
Withdrawing for a bit and spending time reflecting, journaling and following the beat of your own drummer can lead to greater clarity and satisfaction. It can also help you “sharpen your saw.”
One of the seven habits listed in his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes, “Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have — you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”
Reboots Your Brain
Spending time alone also helps your brain. In the book, “The 20-Minute Break” by Ernest Rossi, Ph.D., he writes about what he calls the Ultradian Healing Response. This is based on our body’s ultradian rhythm, which essentially is the body’s natural waking rest-activity cycle (roughly 90 minutes of activity followed by 20 minutes of rest).
Essentially, the brain cannot perform well after 90 minutes without a break. Pushing through actually makes you much less productive and drains your energy. Taking a 20-minute timeout after each 90 minutes of activity can not only refresh you, but also allows you to come back to what you were doing with greater clarity and attention.
Additional benefits of solitude include increased empathy, greater self-confidence, improved health and well-being, etc.
That all sounds good, but what if your life is so full of work, family and other commitments, you cannot see how you can carve out the time? What if being alone feels so awkward and uncomfortable, that you go out of your way to avoid it?
Not to worry. You can start with small increments of alone time. Five minutes a day might be a good place to start.
We can all find five minutes to take a time out at least once every day. See it as a practice. A new form of exercise. A plan to get to know yourself better.
Set a timer and once that timer goes off you can go back to what you were doing. If, however, you’re enjoying yourself, extend your time by another five minutes. See how it goes. Before long you may find yourself looking forward to these mini-retreats and start to seek out longer stretches of time to relax, refresh and reconnect with yourself.
I’ll leave you with these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”
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