Solitude versus isolation: why is having time alone so important?

By Adrian Kwok &

What is solitude?

Think back to when you last gave yourself some mental space. Perhaps you were engaging in positive solitude, a phenomenon in which a person enjoys being by themselves to recharge or be creative. Mor et al. (2021) defines positive solitude as a meaningful and enjoyable experience characterised by the element of choice: when and where do you want to be in solitude? What do you want to do?

Solitude is not reliant on physical aloneness; reading a book on a busy train or a park run with music both count as solitude. Each person may have their own way of being in positive solitude: it’s a state of mind that doesn’t rely on physical circumstances. That said, people tend to find solitude easier in some places rather than others. Many enjoy being in the countryside without a person in sight while others prefer the anonymity of blending into a crowd. They are equally beneficial.

Positive solitude can have many benefits, such as the space and time to escape reality and be creative, to dream about what you may achieve and even set about doing it. However, some people find spending time alone hard to enjoy. Lay et al. (2019) wanted to investigate everyday experiences of solitude. People did 3 questionnaires a day for 10 days, reporting their physical aloneness, mood, and the type of thoughts they were having. 50% of participants found their solitude to be an exclusively negative experience, which you can probably relate to after Valentine’s Day. Positive solitude was only found in situations where people experienced low arousal positive emotions (e.g., calmness or peace), combined with low cognitive effort thought (where you focus more on the outside world, like watching ducks in the park, rather than the voices in your own head). It’s possible that adopting this peaceful, externally-focussed mindset can help us experience more positive solitude.

Dr. Thuy-vy Nguyen, an expert in solitude at Durham University, gives some tips for those wanting to give positive solitude a go. “Don’t overthink it,” she says. “Make time for solitude even just for a brief period, find something you enjoy doing, build that into your monthly, weekly, or daily routine. Build up a habit for your me-time; start small and go from there”. At the end of the day, solitude is your own time. You choose whether you’ll be creative or sporty, surrounded by a crowd or away from the masses.

Modern examples of solitude

With solitude being a relatively new concept, intentional depictions of it are scarce to say the least. However, TV shows and movies do include moments where both positive and negative solitude can be seen. Take “I Am Legend” (2007) as an example. Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a survivor of a man-made plague which has transformed most of New York’s population into bloodthirsty mutants. Although still coping with losing his family and sudden social isolation, he continues to follow his daily routine of working out, researching a cure, and trying to contact other survivors. Unlike most of us still reeling from a bad night at Jimmies, Robert remains productive, using his time alone to not only improve himself but also strive for the betterment of New York, making each moment meaningful. Whilst Robert demonstrates positive solitude, it must be noted that social isolation is fundamentally different from positive solitude. As emphasised by Dr. Nguyen, the key to positive solitude is choice. Robert had no option but to be alone.

While Robert was physically socially isolated, Fleabag is surrounded by those that she feels no connection with. Phoebe Waller-Bridge paints a harshly accurate illustration of how negative solitude in the form of social withdrawal can be crippling. The show follows the story of an unnamed woman grappling with life’s biggest problems: her best friend’s suicide, complicated family dynamics, and falling in love with a “Hot Priest”. Throughout her time with the audience, the main character breaks the fourth wall consistently using it as a coping mechanism. As comedic as these moments are, in most (if not all) she turns to us for solitude, withdrawing herself from the social scenarios that she wants to escape from, hoping to gain perspective and distance from her own life. Even when surrounded by loved ones, interactions with them simply remind her of the isolation she feels, again resulting in her turning to us, or hiding away in the smoking area for momentary sanctuary.

It’s not until her relationship with Hot Priest – someone who truly cares and listens to her – that she turns to us less, finally connecting with him, accumulating in the infamous finale. Here, in response to devastating news, instead of making a wisecrack about her pain, she turns to us one last time, waving a final goodbye. This was the decisive moment where she realised that negative solitude and dissociation weren’t good for her. She leaves us behind to face her life, family and relationships with people who can speak back to her. The moral of Fleabag’s story is that as safe as solitude can make us feel, using it as a form of withdrawal might not be right. Solitude is different from social withdrawal; taking time for ourselves doesn’t have to mean pushing others away. So if you find yourself in that negative space, it might not be the best time for solitude; reach out and be present with someone. Who knows? You might even find your own Hot Priest (figuratively speaking).

Research in Durham

For those of you interested in furthering psychological research, the DU solitude lab would love to have you. There are currently two pioneering studies that you can participate in. For the first, the relationship between daily behaviour and emotions is being explored. You’ll answer surveys throughout the day about your mood and physical aloneness. The second study aims to explore how people in a life transitionary period experience solitude. An interview (with yours truly!) will ask about how silly freshers, first-time mothers, and new retirees spend their alone time. Whilst your contribution to science is the real reward, you’ll also be compensated 10 pounds for your participation.

We’ve included the links and QR codes to sign up to the studies, if you have any questions about solitude please contact Dr. Nguyen at thuy-vy.nguyen@durham.ac.uk or members of the solitude lab to find out more.

Image: Credit Will Brown, created with DALL-E 2

2 thoughts on “Solitude versus isolation: why is having time alone so important?

  • Very nice piece Adrian and Beth! I like that you first clarify what solitude is from scientific standpoint, then relate it to examples that are relevant to people. The analysis of Fleabag is brilliant, as I am a fan of Fleabag myself. Good work.

    Reply
  • In our modern tech-heavy society, having some alone time and solitude is priceless. Even better if it’s in nature with sunlight, water, or animals to reorient ourselves with the true world. Being alone can be dangerous so always arm yourself with practical defense like knuckle rings or pepper spray, and simply enjoy the peace.

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