Thanks to your ever present smartphone, these days you don't have to be alone even when there's no one else around. When we have a moment to ourselves, our first instinct is often to log on to Facebook, send a quick text, or catch up on email.

It's no surprise that we are so reluctant to just hang out alone. Science shows that for many people spending time with themselves can be uncomfortable. One memorable example is the much covered study that revealed large percentages of people (a quarter of women and two thirds of men) prefer giving themselves a painful electric shock to just sitting with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.

So if many people find being alone emotionally taxing and it's easy to avoid, why do it? That's the crux of an interesting article by Belle Beth Cooper on Quartz recently. In the in-depth piece she enumerates a long list of innovators -- from Ernest Hemingway to Steve Wozniak -- who felt solitude was central to their work, before going on to argue that it's not just artists and inventors who need to carve out more time alone.

Why everyone needs some more alone time

Cooper offers four science-backed rationales for why the average person should value solitude. For one, you need to be alone to develop your abilities, she points out. Most practice is solitary and without adequate practice you'll never know how far you can take your talents.

Solitude is also a break from self-consciousness, and worrying what others think of us can be a endless distraction from more important concerns and a hefty drain on our mental resources. Third, contrary to popular belief, "studies have also shown that brainstorming is often best done alone," claims Cooper.

But perhaps the most profound use of solitude is the last one Cooper mentions -- self transformation. In order to figure out who you truly want to be, you need time away from your fellow humans to ponder the question without their input or expectations weighing on your thinking. "The fact that solitude enables people to daydream and reflect on their lives also means that it's associated with self-transformation, as psychologists Christopher Long and James Averill note in their theoretical paper 'Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone" (paywall),'" Cooper points out.

So how do you get better at being alone?

People's inherent appetite for solitude varies greatly. Some introverts (like me) can happily pass days without interacting with anyone, while one guy in the electric shock experiment zapped himself 190 times in a quarter of an hour. He's very much on the other side of the scale.

If you're convinced by Cooper that you could do with nudging yourself towards including a little more solitude in your life, how do you get better at being alone? Her prescription is straightforward: practice. Time in nature is often a soothing way to force yourself to confront your own brain without distractions (and science shows nature has startlingly positive effects on mental health too).

Or, if you're looking for a business-focused solution, why not "follow the lead of Intel, which experimented with office quiet time in 2007. The company set aside four hours of uninterrupted quiet time for 300 engineers and managers every Tuesday morning. During quiet time, employees were not allowed to send emails or make phone calls. The experiment helped employees so much that the majority recommended the approach be rolled out across the company," writes Cooper.

Could you do with having a little more alone time in your life?

Published on: Apr 20, 2016