Solitude as Medicine

If solitude is so good for you, why does it sometimes feel so bad?

Posted Sep 12, 2019

If you’re a person who genuinely enjoys spending time alone, you’ll recognize this scenario:

You’ve finally carved out some time for yourself, and you’ve been anticipating it for days. Finally, some “me time”—no work, family, or social obligations, and the luxury to spend your time however you please. Then you arrive at the appointed hour and settle into the quiet.

Only… it’s too quiet. The bright mood you had evaporates, and you suddenly feel unsettled. You start to get restless. Random thoughts and memories flash through your mind. Anxiety might arise, only to be replaced with sadness, or boredom, or loneliness. At this point, you’re tempted to abandon the whole enterprise and head back out into society, or at least grab your phone and distract yourself with social media. What is going on? If solitude is supposed to be so good for you, why does it often feel so bad?

Jacob Sedlacek / Unsplash
Source: Jacob Sedlacek / Unsplash

If you’ve ever gone through this sequence of events, you’re not alone. Psychological research has documented the multiple benefits we get from freely chosen solitude, ranging from opportunities for contemplation and creativity, to increases in well-being.

However, these same researchers have also been candid about how difficult solitude can be, comparing it, for example to, “a medicine which tastes bad, but leaves one more healthy in the long run” (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1978, p. 691). The reasons for this may be due precisely to one of the major functions of solitude: emotional regulation. Two sets of studies have shown that it is predictable for our moods to lower when we enter solitude—even freely chosen solitude that we have looked forward to.

The Paradoxical Experience of Solitude

The first set of studies, conducted by Reed Larson, surveyed adolescents on their daily habits of being alone and being with others. The researchers tracked how much of their waking time was spent alone, as well as whether their alone time was desired or felt forced (i.e. they had no one to hang out with so they stayed in their rooms alone).

Overall, the relationship between solitude and psychological health was positive. Teens who spent a moderate amount of time alone (defined as 20-35% of their waking hours) were better adjusted (as measured by depression, teacher ratings, problem behaviors, and GPA) than those who spent either very little or a lot of time alone. They also felt less self-conscious, reported higher levels of concentration, had lower rates of depression and alienation, and reported feeling better after being alone.

Andrew Neel / Unsplash
Source: Andrew Neel / Unsplash

However, these same adolescents consistently reported feeling more lonely and unhappy during their solitude than when they were with people. Despite this, they continued to voluntarily enter solitude and did not express a desire to be with others instead. How can these contradictory findings be explained?

It's About Your Nervous System

Recent research by Nguyen, Ryan, & Deci (2018) helps shed light on this question. They distinguished between “high-arousal” and “low-arousal” affective states. High arousal states are stimulating, and can be experienced as pleasant (e.g. sociable, excited) or unpleasant (e.g. angry, anxious). Low arousal states, on the other hand, have a “de-activating” effect on our nervous system, whether experienced as pleasant (e.g. calm, relaxed), or unpleasant (e.g. bored, lonely).

The researchers asked college students to sit alone in a room for 15 minutes, with no external stimulation available (i.e. no smartphones, no books, no TV, etc.). Before and after their alone time, the students filled out a questionnaire asking about their current mood. They found that overall, solitude had a “deactivating” effect, lowering the students’ high arousal states, both positive and negative. In other words, it had a calming effect on highly charged states like anxiety or excitability.

However, this deactivation effect also increased low arousal states, both positive and negative. This means that although students felt more relaxed, they also were more likely to feel bored and lonely. This helps explain why we often seek solitude for its calming effects, but then end up feeling moody while we’re alone.

Solitude Helps You Self-Regulate

Essentially, what both sets of studies reveal is that engaging in solitude appears to act as a form of self-regulation, helping us balance the constant flux of positive and negative emotional states that befall us. Reed Larson speculated that the negative moods we experience on the surface when we enter solitude may be masking important processes underneath.

In lay terms what this means is that in our day to day lives, we are often too busy to pause and actually feel our feelings. Important issues may come up—around relationships, our direction in life, or our past—and we set these aside because we don’t have time to reflect on them. Then when we are finally alone and our attention becomes inner-directed, the emotions, memories, or problems we have been suppressing suddenly rise to the surface.

This change of attention can trigger the initial negative moods that come with solitude. Although we might term them “negative” because they make us uncomfortable, Larson argued that experiencing these emotions prompts self-reflection, which is important for our mental health. What’s more, the lowered mood of the adolescents and adults in his studies showed a rebound effect, meaning their moods were much higher after solitude than at any other time—including after being with other people.

The Bottom Line

Clint McKoy / Unsplash
Source: Clint McKoy / Unsplash

It appears that one of the benefits—indeed, one of the functions—of solitude is that it helps us regulate our moods and, if we go all the way through the process, ultimately offers us emotional renewal. So, the next time your “me-time” gets a little uncomfortable, take a deep breath—you’ll feel better if you see it through.

References

Larson, R. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1978). Experiential correlates of time alone in adolescence. Journal of Personality, 46, 677-793.

Larson, R. (1997). The emergence of solitude as a constructive domain of experience in early adolescence, Child Development, 68, 1, 80-93.  

Nguyen, T. T., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Solitude as an Approach to Affective Self-Regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(1), 92–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217733073