Why solitude is good for us

I’ve recently been reading a fascinating book – Solitude by Michael Harris

It really made me stop and think about why I thought it was important to be connected to others all the time, and perhaps why I found that difficult sometimes.

I’ve written a short summary of the book, considering what isolation is, why it’s good for us, why we struggle to access it, and what we can do about it.

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Extreme Isolation

The book starts considering the life of Dr Edith Bone, who was arrested put in solitary confinement for 7 years in Hungary in 1949.  During this time she experienced starvation, interrogation, and appalling living conditions being surrounded by mold.

Amazingly, she was able to use her mental faculties and imagination to overcome difficulties she was faced with during periods extreme isolation, by remaining creative, practicing her linguistic skills, and recreating the journey home in her mind.  When released in 1956, she emerged from prison “a little wiser and full of hope”

Most people’s mental health would have suffered immensely during this period.  So what made the difference?  How was she able to do this? How could solitude be good for your mental health?

Solitude is not loneliness, but is a normal part of being human

It’s worth noting that solitude is not social isolation, or loneliness.  We know that these states are particularly bad for your health and wellbeing, for example increasing risk of heart attaches, dementia and depression.

We’re naturally inward directing when we are in the womb, but we learn to be social, through we learn from others how to socially interact.  We are constantly encouraged to be with others.

In fact we are constantly encouraged to be connected, to have relationships.  Psychologist Ester Buchholz notes that if we don’t we are considered “antisocial or crazy.” 

We can move so far that our social connections cause us to be unaware of our own internal world.

There is a failure to notice that we need both internal self-understanding and social connection.  Indeed, are lack of self-regulation could explain our social and psychological disease states

Why might it be good for us?

There’s lots of research about the potential benefits showing solitude is good for your mental health

We know that it can improves memory, awareness, creativity.  We’ll all recognize the feeling that if we go for a walk on our own, solutions to our problems float to the surface.  It can also enable us to be calmer, more attentive and think more clearly.  Again, if we practice meditation or breathing exercises, you’ll notice how reaching inner peace can enable these to occur.  Finally, it allows us freedom to be ourselves, in isolation, without having to confirm to social norms.

What is stopping us having solitude?

You may be aware of Dunbar’s number, a calculation based upon primate brain size and maximum size of group relationships.  Humans have a natural group size of about close 150 relationships that they can successfully maintain at the same time.

Dunbar noticed the bigger a primate group, the more time is spent on social grooming, up to 20% of the day.  This fits with the idea that we are social animals, hard wired to enact social behaviors to enable our survival. 

But we now live in times where we have multiple relationships greater than 150 in number.  So how did we get round this?  It is thought that language enabled this to occur passing complex information from one to multiple people, enabling advances like hunting and farming, and with it population growth and expansion

So we’re hard wired to be social, and to communicate.  And this has been hijacked by Mobile phones & Social Media.   As I write this for LinkedIn, and you read this, we are communicating with each other.  Indeed, currently 58% of the world is on social media, using it for an average of 2.5 hours/day.  And it’s hard to stop.  Our reward chemical Dopamine is released each time we send and receive a message, tap a screen, hear a ping.

Solitude is good for your mental health – Time to be alone

Having seen that solitude is good for your mental health, we can see now that solitude is a lost resource – our time, energy, creativity, and mental health can all be drained away by not having time alone.

We need to make room for isolation to enable us to lead happy, healthy lives.  I’ve learned this the hard way There’s lots of ways of approaching this.  Here’s some evidence based tips.

  • Plan to take time out:

For me, time on my allotment is key for spending time away from work and family pressures, just having time to think.  I need to plan this into my week to make sure it occurs.  Walking in a woodland environment or nature can doubly beneficial also, even for a few mintues.

  • Learn to be comfortable with yourself and your thoughts. 

This is always a work in progress for me, but using meditation apps and classes, as well as undertaking doing a course in mindfulness based CBT

  • Switch those endless Whatsapp messages for genuine connection with friends face to face. 

Just arrange a phone call, meet for lunch or to see each other

  • Change your social media use. 

I don’t use my mobile for social media now, and post occasionally in a controlled way.  Tips include Limiting the amount of time (or stop) social media use.  Also question – why am I doing this?  Is it important?  Could I use the time for something else?

  • Turn that phone off, block apps, or leave it at home

I’m increasingly leaving the phone so I’m not fiddling with it when I should be speaking to my family or friends.  It’s easy to retreat into it if it’s there/

Turn that phone off – try a day a week with it off!

And that’s it.  Try out one of the tips above & please let me know your thoughts below.


Solitude, Michael Harris

The Call of Solitude, Alonetime in a World of Attachment, Ester Buchholz

Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world


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