The Virtues of Isolation
Under the right circumstances, choosing to spend time alone can be a huge psychological boon.
In the ’80s, the Italian journalist and author Tiziano Terzani, after many years of reporting across Asia, holed himself up in a cabin in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. “For a month I had no one to talk to except my dog Baoli,” he wrote in his travelogue A Fortune Teller Told Me. Terzani passed the time with books, observing nature, “listening to the winds in the trees, watching butterflies, enjoying silence.” For the first time in a long while he felt free from the incessant anxieties of daily life: “At last I had time to have time.”
But Terzani’s embrace of seclusion was relatively unusual: Humans have long stigmatized solitude. It has been considered an inconvenience, something to avoid, a punishment, a realm of loners. Science has often aligned it with negative outcomes. Freud, who linked solitude with anxiety, noted that, “in children the first phobias relating to situations are those of darkness and solitude.” John Cacioppo, a modern social neuroscientist who has extensively studied loneliness—what he calls “chronic perceived isolation”—contends that, beyond damaging our thinking powers, isolation can even harm our physical health. But increasingly scientists are approaching solitude as something that, when pursued by choice, can prove therapeutic.
This is especially true in times of personal turbulence, when the instinct is often for people to reach outside of themselves for support. “When people are experiencing crisis it’s not always just about you: It’s about how you are in society,” explains Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University who has studied solitude. “When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting.”
In other words, when people remove themselves from the social context of their lives, they are better able to see how they’re shaped by that context. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer who spent years alone, held a similar notion. “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom,” he writes in Thoughts in Solitude.
Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through what Fong calls “existentializing moments,” mental flickers of clarity which can occur during inward-focused solitude. Fong developed this idea from the late German-American sociologist Kurt Wolff’s “surrender and catch” theory of personal epiphany. “When you have these moments, don't fight it. Accept it for what it is. Let it emerge calmly and truthfully and don't resist it,” Fong says. “Your alone time should not be something that you're afraid of.”
Yet, at the same time, it is not only about being alone. “It’s a deeper internal process,” notes Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist at Medaille College who has researched solitude. Productive solitude requires internal exploration, a kind of labor which can be uncomfortable, even excruciating. “It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.”
Yet today, in our hyper-connected society, Bowker believes that solitude is “more devalued than it has been in a long time.” He points to a recent study at the University of Virginia in which several participants–a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men–chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts. Bowker sees this heightened distaste for solitude playing out in pop culture as well. For example, vampires used to be portrayed in stories as secluded hermits, whereas now you’re more likely to see them on camera as sexy socialites, he notes.
And even though many great thinkers have championed the intellectual and spiritual benefits of solitude–Lao Tzu, Moses, Nietzsche, Emerson, Woolf (“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table”)– many modern humans seem hell-bent on avoiding it. “Every time we have a chance to go running we plug in our headphones. Every time we sit in the car we listen to NPR,” laments Bowker. “I mean, my students today tell me they can’t go to the bathroom without their phone on.”
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.
Yet, because the study of solitude as a positive force is new, it’s hard to speak in precise scientific terms about it: We don’t know what the ideal amount is, for instance, or even if there is one. Most likely, such measures are different for everybody. But researchers recommended taking it where you can get it, by meditating, taking solo walks or going on camping trips alone. Bowker makes a point of driving in silence. The point is to be away from social interaction and looking inward, however this may be achieved for you. “Solitude does not have form,” says Fong. “It is amorphous.”
After his month-long seclusion in Japan, during which he “put [himself] back together,” Terzani, already a well-known reporter in Italy, went on to build a successful career as an author. Though he was an atheist, Terzani gained an almost religious following for his later writings, much of which interweaved reportage with personal experience and philosophical musings. After his death in 2004 from stomach cancer, the adoption of him as a guru-like figure was something which some intellectuals bemoaned, calling it a disservice to his message. “The only real teacher is not in a forest, or a hut or an ice cave in the Himalayas,” he once remarked. “It is within us.” One imagines him reaching the conclusion alone.