While it's incredibly easy to be lonely in our fragmented, tech-obsessed world, finding actual solitude is incredibly difficult. To really get away from the voices (real or virtual) of others, you need not only be physically alone, you must also manage to unplug yourself from the constant barrage of chatter, opinions, and ads coming to you via your screens.
Why should you make the effort to wrench yourself away from all connection to other people regularly?
Previous science has offered some motivation. Less screen time seems to be linked with more happiness, for example, and psychologists have long argued that you need to be alone with your own mind to be creative and reflect deeply on your life. But a new study dives deep into the beneficial effects of just 15 minutes of complete solitude, making a compelling case for regularly scheduled device-free alone time.
Solitude is like a thermostat for your emotions.
The researchers started from a simple premise - being alone with ourselves is often seen as hard. Many people report it is difficult to start meditating for example, while one much chattered about recent study showed people prefer to give themselves mild electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts. Does it have to be so difficult? And if it is, why bother?
To figure this out the team out of the University of Rochester asked 75 volunteers to do nothing more complicated than sit, alone, in a comfortable chair for 15 minutes without their devices. A control group instead chatted with a researcher for a quarter of an hour. How did simply chilling out alone for a short period affect the study subjects?
In short, their strong emotions were "deactivated," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog. Whether they were feeling something strongly positive, like joy, or strongly negative, like anxiety, the volunteers reported that their time in the chair reduced the intensity of these feelings. And because the dial on these strong emotions was turned down, the students also reported feeling subtler emotions (like calmness or loneliness) more keenly.
Follow-up studies that asked volunteers to find time for 15 minutes of device-free solitude each day for a week and keep a journal of their experiences showed the same thing - fewer intense emotions and a greater awareness of subtle ones.
Why this might be good... and uncomfortable
This effect suggests both why solitude is so valuable, and why it might sometimes be uncomfortable. The hubbub of other people keeps us stimulated. If you're trying to ignore quiet, nagging worries about your life, that's helpful. All the commotion drowns out your subtle anxieties. So turning off the noise is bound to feel uncomfortable as you'll sense your underlying disquiet more keenly.
But in the long-run do you really want to ignore that soft inner voice telling you you're on the wrong track? (Or, for that matter, the quiet inner voice gratefully celebrating small moments of contentment?) After all, you can't fix problems you don't acknowledge. While solitude forces us to face our whispered fears - and that's no picnic - not facing them is a recipe for regret.
So take a look at your schedule and see when was the last time you spent 15 whole minutes alone with nothing for company but your own brain. If the answer isn't immediately obvious, it might be time to set aside just a few minutes for complete solitude daily. By being alone you'll turn down your loudest emotions and really hear your inner voice. If you don't take the time to listen, your life could end up more offtrack than you think.