In a previous article, we discussed how the COVID-19 restrictions and the subsequent digital divide had contributed to a greater sense of loneliness and isolation with our society. While 2021 has allowed for looser restrictions, many of us are still staying and working from home due to changing circumstances. This means that we are likely spending the majority of our time together with our families, even though it has been over a year since the onset of the pandemic. Having this surplus of quality time together with our loved ones is indubitably essential when it comes to strengthening relationships and improving our mental wellbeing. However, it can also be easy for us to forget about carving out some time for ourselves in the midst of constant companionship. The key to reaping the benefits of voluntary, mindful solitude is to find the balance between connecting with oneself and connecting with others. To do so, we must first understand the difference between loneliness and solitude.
Loneliness and solitude
Loneliness and solitude both refer to a state of being alone, though what differentiates them is our mindset in doing so. Loneliness is often associated with more negative states of mind as it tends to stem from a disconnection within ourselves, such as when we struggle to understand our own desires, needs, and capabilities. In this sense, loneliness has more to do with a possible over-dependence on others and the lack of ability to enjoy one’s own company, rather than the number of friends that we have. It can also be caused by isolation just as much as situations when we are surrounded by people.
On the other hand, solitude entails a more positive state of mind that comes with the sense of comfort and independence of self-confidence. People who are able to find joy in solitude tend to view their alone time as precious opportunities to work on their health and wellbeing. While this sounds straightforward, it can be easier said than done, especially in our current climate. Mindful solitude and time alone are likely to be precious commodities for families and couples who have been cooped up together for over a year. Some of us may not even realise that our stress and irritability could be tied to this lack of solitude, resulting in an innate craving for time and space away from others which experts call ‘aloneliness’. Fortunately, it is easier to create opportunities for solitude by setting aside some time to do things on your own. This can be as simple as taking a walk, spending some time in a cafe, or booking a quick solo staycation. When we start to experience and understand the benefits of having this time to ourselves, the enjoyment of solitude should come more naturally.
The benefits of mindful solitude
What exactly do we stand to gain by practising mindful solitude? The answer differs from person to person, but there are a few things that it is known to help with. For one, it can help to ground us in the present by giving us time to reflect on where we are in our lives as well as where we would like to go. This also provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge our accomplishments and personal growth, in turn fostering feelings of empowerment that help to counter the overwhelming sense of helplessness that a lot of us have felt during the pandemic.
Solitude also serves as a powerful tool for self-discovery as it affords us unique opportunities to try out new ideas and interests without having to worry about the opinions of others. Research has shown that teens are less self-conscious when they are alone1 - in the same vein, we are likely to be more confident and willing to explore outside our comfort zone when we are by ourselves. These mindset shifts are integral for our self-improvement and ultimately feed into a virtuous cycle of discovery, growth, confidence and empowerment. Over time, these traits can translate into better productivity, creativity, engagement and even greater fulfilment with our lives. Studies have also echoed this, with findings stating that we are more effective at brainstorming when we alternate between doing so alone and with a group2.
Taking care of our own health and wellness needs via periods of solitude does not just benefit us on an individual level. In fact, developing a better relationship with ourselves can also have resounding impacts on the relationships that we have with others. You have probably heard of the phrase, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. Recharging ourselves during moments of solitude helps to ensure that our own cups are filled before we move on to care for others. This also means that we are able to be fully present for others in times of need, resulting in stronger and more long-lasting relationships. As we continue growing, this is also likely to help us develop more empathy and compassion for the people around us3
Over to you
The past year has seen us spend most of our time at home with our families and significant others, giving us less control over our own time and space. In light of this, taking some time to be alone, even if it is just for a few hours, can actually be extremely beneficial for ourselves as well as our families. Ultimately, all of us have different thresholds of how much time we want to spend alone and with others. It is key that we figure out this balance for ourselves. This will not only ensure that we can strengthen our relationships with our loved ones, but it also allows us the time and space to recharge and grow as a person.
1. Larson, R. (2006). The Emergence of Solitude as a Constructive Domain of Experience in Early Adolescence.
2. Association for Psychological Science. (2016). There’s a Better Way to Brainstorm.
3. Neyfakh, L. (2011). The Power of Lonely.