As we sat down to dinner by the fire, one friend reflected on his highlight of the day: the quiet. “I loved my time alone because I could take a break from the busyness and movement of the world. I didn’t have to worry about anyone or anything.” He smiled at the thought. I couldn’t remember the last time I was alone. Really alone. Just me and my thoughts.
Many of us fool ourselves into believing we’re spending time alone. But it doesn’t count if we’re “alone” in the car—on the phone, or “alone” with our laptop, skimming email. Sure, most of us recognize being alone as being apart from friends, family, and co-workers. But to be alone with your own thoughts, to be your own companion, requires more: We must be able to focus inward, without distraction from others. That means space that’s quiet enough you can hear your deep rumblings and daydreams. We don’t need to meditate to get there. But we’re also not doing much—maybe one thing, but not more. For lots of us, that’s rare.You’re not alone if the last time you enjoyed an uninterrupted hour was too long ago to remember. Most of us don’t go anywhere without our phones. They play our music, snap our photos, and answer our questions. They also connect us to everyone and everything we know. In a culture that celebrates multitasking, efficiency and busyness, these devices are a second self. But they’re also a tether. Leaving them behind—or turning them off—is a powerful way to find the freedom to let your mind wander.
in and out
We know that meaningful connections with others make us feel good, but a growing body of research shows that time to ourselves is equally important. Even if you thrive in groups most of the time, quiet grounds us all, explains Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book, Quiet. “Solitude matters, and for some people, it's the air they breathe,” she says. Finding a balance, amid all the chatter, can be incredibly hard.It’s also well worth the trouble. Missing time alone is a bit like being sleep deprived; without it, you’re not firing on all cylinders. You can’t think straight. You’re cranky. But when you’re well-rested, you feel rejuvenated and clear. You feel right again.
We all feel more balanced when we make space for solitude. Here’s why:
- It improves our health. “To enjoy time alone is to know ourselves better and feel less pushed around by the expectations of others and the culture we live in,” says Arnie Kozak, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Space away can be just the tonic we need.
- It makes room for imagination. “Creative work and introspection and deep thoughts tend to come when we allow ourselves space, and that tends to happen when we are alone,” explains Christine Whelan, author and clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. Solitude frees you to think openly and differently.
- It strengthens our relationships. “We cannot desire that which we already possess. Three-dimensional love must include periods of separation,” writes Michael Harris, author of Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World. Time alone helps us understand ourselves and think about what matters—to us.Off you go
ease into solitude.
Sneak out for a walk by yourself. Sit still, in quiet, and think about your week ahead. Or let your mind wander. Remind yourself that this time is far from selfish; we need to know and love ourselves if we want to thrive, grow and connect with others. Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton spent years in a hermitage, where he wrote about the virtues of quiet contemplation in Thoughts in Solitude. “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom.”We’ve had the power all along.
All we need to see and know ourselves is within us.