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Alone, Not Lonely: The Power of Purposeful Isolation
The word 'isolation' gets a pretty bad rap these days. (After the events of 2020 onwards, I'm sure I don't have to remind you why). But that's not the kind of isolation I'm here to talk about.
Isolation isn't a bad concept in and of itself; in fact, it can be an incredibly powerful tool for development and self-discovery if we let it. Purposeful loneliness – or intentionally removing yourself from 'regular life' – can boost well-being, creativity, and productivity through the roof.
The thing about humans is that we're fundamentally social creatures. Rarely will we take purposeful steps away from our tribe. Being apart from the people and things we're used to can feel like a threat to our survival; why would we want to disconnect from our world if the company is so much safer?
I'd never tell anyone to take a permanent hiatus from social life, but I've got a few convincing reasons to take a momentary step back.
Let's talk about it.
Lonely, or Alone (Or Both)?
We often conflate loneliness with being alone. It's not hard to see why; they're both states of being disconnected from the people and places we know. The words themselves share four of the same letters.
But the two aren't interchangeable, and depending on your situation, they can mean very different things.
How do I know this?
Well, I know for a fact that you can feel perfectly content all on your own. You might be home 'alone' getting your list of chores done – but your favorite music is playing, you've made an entire dance routine with the vacuum cleaner, and you're feeling more productive than ever. I wouldn't call that 'lonely'.
On the other hand, you can be completely surrounded by people and feel incredibly, incredibly lonely. Being surrounded by people doesn't rule out loneliness; if they're people who don't understand you or who you feel uncomfortable and disconnected from, you're likely to feel lonelier than ever.
I'm explaining all of this because I think we need to disconnect being 'alone' from the negative connotations of being 'lonely'. We'll never step out of our comfort zone and spend intentional time by ourselves if we view it as an objectively bad thing.
Escaping the Constant Noise
With that out of the way, let's unpack one of the greatest barriers to happiness: noise.
I don't mean literal noise - I mean the constant commentary we're exposed to on a daily basis. We've got self-help books flying at us from every shelf. We've got brand messaging insisting that we'll be happier if we just buy that product, just spend that money, just add that subscription to our list.
We've got the news, which is never a good source of happiness – and we've got social media, where everyone's lives look far better than ours ever could.
No matter how much you love your life, that constant barrage of 'noise' will convince you your life sucks in two seconds flat. How are you supposed to be content with who you are when everyone around is telling you that you need to do more and be more?
More to the point, how can you possibly achieve the life you want without silence and focus? Sometimes, you need a little quiet.
The Role of Distractions
"Distraction is the modern day equivalent of avoiding the dangerous or unknown in ancient times." - Dr. Jud Brewer, addiction psychiatrist (for HBR)
The problem with noise and distraction is that, against our better judgment, we tend to welcome it. Why? Because it's an escape from our responsibilities, goals, and problems.
When we procrastinate or lean into distraction, it's usually because we're anxious about a task at hand. We're hoping to avoid the pain of undertaking growth; we are terrified that the effort won't pay off. And so, we distract.
Here's an example: you've decided to finally pick up your fitness by taking a daily run. Morning comes, though, and you start scrolling through your phone instead of lacing up your runners. The minutes tick away until you physically don't have time to go for a run before work.
It's easy enough to say, "I'll try again tomorrow," and maybe you will try again. But what you've just engaged in is a cycle of distraction and procrastination.
When we're exposed to distraction and messaging from all facets of our lives, it's almost impossible to catch a break.
The Influence of Friends
Aside from everyday distractions, there's another heavy influence that stops us from growing: a bad friendship circle.
Now, let's dissect what I mean by 'bad' – because I don't necessarily mean thugs, narcissists, or liars. Someone could be perfectly nice and still have a bad influence on your personal growth. I'm talking about friends who encourage you to take part in co-rumination.
If you're unsure of that term, here's an explanation from psychologist Dr. Rebecca Schwartz-Mette:
“Co-rumination is basically when people get together and talk excessively about everything that’s going wrong and how bad they feel. With that person, they feel understood, validated, and that this person is emotionally close to them. But they get more depressed because they’re focusing their attention on negative things.”
In other words – it's a relational echo chamber. I'm sure we've all engaged in co-rumination at least once without fully understanding the consequences. It's incredibly easy to fall into the trap of complaining with your friends.
The Co-Rumination Trap
Sometimes, co-rumination can feel super validating. Maybe you're having a hard time finding a fulfilling job or getting over a painful breakup. If a friend can relate to those experiences, it's cathartic to sit together in your frustration or misery.
But there's a certain point where it becomes toxic – a point where you use your frustration as an excuse not to try. And giving up is so much easier when someone else is doing it with you.
This is why people say, "You're the product of your five closest friends!" because it's absolutely true. It's hard to quit drinking if your friendship circle doesn't see the value of sobriety. It's hard to remove yourself from social media when everyone around you is staring down at a phone.
Most importantly, it's near impossible to grow and develop as a person if your closest friends want to remain stagnant. The pull downwards can happen very subtly and suddenly.
Is Isolation the Answer?
"Humans have long stigmatized solitude. It has been considered an inconvenience, something to avoid, a punishment, a realm of loners... But increasingly scientists are approaching solitude as something that, when pursued by choice, can prove therapeutic." - Brent Crane, The Atlantic
When people reach their breaking point, where do they go?
I don't mean times when we encounter a mild inconvenience, or when our hearts are broken, or when we just need a vacation. I mean the times when your life is crumbling around you, and it feels like there's no way out.
More often than not, people turn to isolation in these moments of extreme desperation. They run to the mountains. They escape to an Airbnb in the countryside and 'breathe the open air'.
But you don't need to be at breaking point to enter isolation. What about the wisest, most self-knowledgeable people on earth?
Monks in certain religious and spiritual sects spent months, years, even decades in solitude for the purpose of enlightenment. Nuns had scheduled hours of silence and introspection. Many people still practice solitude today as part of their spiritual pursuits.
Yep, people have been enjoying the benefits of solitude for centuries and centuries – we've just forgotten about their art form. Sitting alone with your thoughts is one of the most powerful things you can do.
The Science-Backed Benefits of Being Alone
It's all well and good to appreciate solitude as a spiritual practice, but why do it yourself?
(More to the point, how can you do it yourself? But we'll get to that later.)
Let's dig into the scientific reasons.
It Makes You Confront Your Thoughts
"When we have nothing to do, all we are left with is how we feel...At some point, we need to learn how to be at peace with those feelings, and we can’t do that if we keep consuming all the time." - Guy Burgs, Art of Meditation founder (for The Guardian)
If you've ever tried to sit still without distractions, you know it can range anywhere from uncomfortable to physically painful. Yes, it's weird to be without distractions and slow down – but it's also incredibly confronting to look at your own thoughts and have to face how you're feeling.
It's obviously far easier to avoid confronting these things. Most of the time, that's what we do. But if you really want to improve your life and develop as a person, you literally can't avoid this step. Isolation puts you in the best place to do it.
It Makes You More Creative
In a study at the University of Buffalo, 295 undergraduate students answered surveys about their social life and creativity levels (among other factors). There was a strong link drawn between the less social types and higher levels of creativity.
This isn't surprising based on other research I've found. Consider the fact that we literally can't multitask, and it's easy to see why isolation boosts creativity on a practical level. You can't get into a state of creative flow with distractions entering your mental space every three seconds.
Ever come up with an incredible idea for your business while sitting on a plane? Chances are, that's because you were in forced isolation and unable to connect to anyone or anything. Research shows that we really need solitude in order for our imaginative brain network (aka the Default Mode Network) to do its thing. Cutting off other stimulation really lets our imagination run wild.
It Gives You A Chance To Breathe
I've written about burnout before, and everyone else is writing about it, too. Why? Because it's a real threat to our wellbeing – not just now, but well into the future. And how do you get burnout? By keeping a million mental tabs running in the background at all times.
Intentional periods of isolation give you the much-needed chance to inhale and exhale. Think of the emotional and mental release you get from closing the tabs on your computer; you need to do that with your brain, or it'll start to seriously lag.
In 2023, it seems like we've never been busier. You might've read this whole article thinking, "This doesn't apply to me. I hardly have time to sleep, let alone isolate myself from the outside world!"
That's why we've got to get crafty. Most of us don't have time to run off into the hills, but thankfully, that's not necessary to get the kind of isolation you need. I'm a huge fan of a strategy I'll call 'micro-solitude' – here are a few simple examples.
1. Eat Your Lunch In Silence
If there's one thing most of us do each day, it's eating lunch. But don't be guilty of distraction-eating! If you're someone who takes your lunch back to their desk to keep working, it's time to re-evaluate.
Taking that 30-minute interval to be still, silent, and mindful is an incredibly powerful way to enter solitude. Find somewhere away from everyone else and simply sit. Eat. Ponder. Reflect on how the day is going. Remember – you’re not lonely, you’re just momentarily alone.
You'd be surprised at how challenging this feels! Push through the pain, and you'll soon use these distraction-free lunch breaks as a mini-retreat.
2. Take A Technology Sabbath
We all know our technology habits are out of control. It's time to take back the reigns and have a technology sabbath once a week – ideally, on the same day each week so it becomes habit. No phone, no TV, no laptop for 24 hours.
If you can't be away from tech for work or family reasons, don't throw in the towel; there are plenty of ways to give yourself the break you need. Delete the unnecessary apps altogether (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit) and just leave Messenger and Slack.
But don't stop there. Arrange your notifications so that they're sound-free, buzz-free, and restricted to certain time windows. Make sure that at least a small chunk of your tech sabbath is completely silent; go for a walk or pick up a book to fill the void if you need to.
3. Decide To Become An Expert
What I mean by this is: if you're going to spend time on technology outside of work, get intentional with it. Is there a skill you've been meaning to hone? Is there a topic you've always wanted to learn more about? What’s something you can pursue as a solo interest?
Instead of spreading your attention thin over Instagram reels, random YouTube videos, and posts from distant Facebook friends you don't even care about, focus on one thing and become super knowledgeable in it.
The simple act of focusing your attention on one topic is a form of isolation in itself; you're staying in one lane and cutting out external distractions. If you can, try mastering a skill that doesn't involve screens or being online at all.
4. Reduce Sensory Overload
Are you in the habit of blasting your eardrums with music, brown noise, or a podcast every time you've got a job to do? Many of us do this so that we feel like we're optimizing our time. Yes, we're doing the laundry, and it's boring – but at least we're being entertained at the same time!
The problem is that our attention is being pulled in a million different directions. Plus, it's easy to reach the point where we can no longer do anything productive without music or noise in the background.
Not only is this habit unhealthy, but it's also an enemy of solitude. Instead, try stripping away all forms of distraction and just being with your thoughts for a while. Pick one task (e.g., grocery list) and complete it in total silence – you'll be shocked at how productive you can be and how refreshed you feel after the fact.
5. Withdraw from Social Outings (Not Forever!)
Remember earlier when I said that friendships can be a bad influence? Even if your friends have a positive influence on your mental health, it can be super beneficial to step back for a little while – especially if you typically do something social every single weekend.
Next time you think to plan a coffee date, take yourself instead. Go for that river walk by yourself. See a movie on your own. Go to the concert solo. Plan out little adventures that you know your inner person would love.
All of these things help you get familiar with yourself, like speed dating. You’d be surprised, after living with you all these years, how much you’ve yet to learn!
Is Solitude A One-Time Fix?
I think you know the answer to this – no, it's not a one-time solution. We need to make solitude and isolation a habit for it to be truly effective. Ideally, it becomes a natural part of our life and our default mechanism for self-development and stress relief.
It's the same with any form of self-care: we can't expect to feel better after one session. We need to commit to a daily practice of being alone and learning how to be comfortable with our own thoughts and feelings.
This is why it's so important that you find ways to make isolation work for you – e.g., micro-solitude, technology sabbaths, small pockets of peace and quiet. That way, you're not overwhelmed by trying to fit in something huge (like a full weekend retreat) all at once.
If you've got wisdom of your own to share on this topic, please feel free to reply or leave a comment! I'm still on the learning train myself and always love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading!
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