This is not to say that true solitude necessarily requires an absence of stimuli. Rather, “the value of solitude depends on whether an individual can find an interior solitude” within themselves, says Bowker. Everyone is different in that regard: “Some people can go for a walk or listen to music and feel that they are deeply in touch with themselves. Others cannot.”
Generally, Bowker contends that our “mistrust of solitude” has consequences. For one, “we’ve become a more groupish society,” he says. In A Dangerous Place to Be: Identity, Conflict, and Trauma in Higher Education, an upcoming book Bowker co-authored with David Levine, a psychoanalyst at the University of Denver, the authors trace a line between the devaluing of solitude and the ongoing ideological conflicts afflicting college campuses. “We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define [ourselves]. In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within,” Bowker says. “Separating from the group, I would argue, is one thing that universities should be facilitating more.”
That is where solitude comes in. Such a separation requires what psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the “capacity to be alone.” This is key to Bowker’s idea of solitude as self-strengthening. “You have to have that capacity: the ability to know that you’re gonna survive, that you’re gonna be okay if you’re not supported by this group,” Bowker says. “Put another way, a person who can find a rich self-experience in a solitary state is far less likely to feel lonely when alone.”
There is a catch to all of this: For solitude to be beneficial, certain preconditions must be met. Kenneth Rubin, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland, calls them the “ifs.” Solitude can be productive only: if it is voluntary, if one can regulate one’s emotions “effectively,” if one can join a social group when desired, and if one can maintain positive relationships outside of it. When such conditions aren’t met, yes, solitude can be harmful. Consider the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, where hundreds of thousands of depressed or troubled young people quarter themselves away, sometimes for years, often requiring extensive reintegration therapy to move on. The difference between solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering is the quality of self-reflection that one can generate while in it, and the ability to come back to social groups when one wants to.
When preconditions are met, solitude can be restorative. For Fong, who meditates 15 minutes a day and takes monthly solo camping trips, it is at least as essential as exercise or healthy eating. Possibly, he says, it is necessary for a truly healthy mind. “It really lifts you out of problems. It really, really has a powerful function for making you understand your predicament in this universe,” he says.