The past few years have given many of us a whole new understanding of solitude — whether we wanted it or not.
Between the shelter-in-place orders, social distancing guidelines and mandatory quarantines, many of us have spent weeks at a time seeing no one in person but our local grocery store clerk. (Or perhaps seeing more people than we'd like, cramped among family or working at a busy hospital or grocery store — just dreaming of more alone time.)
Either way, being alone has been on our minds — and on the minds of experimental psychologists, too. Over the past few years, researchers have devoted significant study to the concept of solitude — its potential benefits, its role in our lives, even its basic definition.
So, here are a few takeaways from their recent work — with an eye toward how you can embrace alone time and make solitude a healthy practice in your life.
Solitude is in the mind of the beholder
Let's get one crucial idea out of the way first.
"There isn't even a really agreed-upon definition about what solitude means," says Robert Coplan of Carleton University in Canada.
And he should know. Beyond his role as director of the Pickering Centre for Human Development, he and colleague Julie Bowker edited The Handbook of Solitude, a collection of some of the latest scholarly research on solitude.
It makes sense that there should be some confusion. After all, are you experiencing solitude if you are stranded on a desert island ... with a good Wi-Fi connection and updates to peruse on Instagram? What about when you're on a crowded subway platform, but with earbuds in and everyone else ignoring you? Where is the line between "together" and "alone"?
Those questions aren't easy to answer, and to date, psychologists haven't settled on a single definition of solitude or the nature of its "active ingredient," in Coplan's words.
But many agree, at least when conducting their studies, that the key rests with whether participants feel alone. One's subjective perspective matters more than whether their objective circumstances would bear that out on closer inspection. In other words, if you feel alone, you probably are — at least for the purposes of your mental state.
We may crave time alone the way we crave time with others
When we feel lonely, it's because our desire for company exceeds our ability to find it. And Coplan posits that this process can work in reverse as well: If our desire for solitude exceeds our ability to find it, we can also struggle with feelings of discomfort.
"All the evolutionary psychologists talk about the need to affiliate with others, that we evolved with this need to be around others. And that's 100% true. I also think there is a need for solitude, which has been less well defined and less well discussed," he explains.
"If we're not satisfying that need, there might also be a cost, just like there's a cost of being lonely if you don't satisfy your need to belong."
What constitutes the right amount of solitude varies person to person, Coplan says, but when you aren't getting enough time on your own, you may begin to feel more irritable, anxious or put out.
Don't expect an epiphany
Easy there, Thoreau. Don't get solitude mixed up with the promise of insight or revelation. While the concepts are often paired in books and films, real life is obviously a lot more complicated. Sometimes solitude is calming, sometimes meaningful, but for a lot of us, it's often downright uncomfortable.
Just look at a 2014 study in which a majority of participants preferred giving themselves an electric shock(!) to simply sitting alone with their thoughts for up to 15 minutes. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself wishing for a simple electric shock while waiting impatiently for that lightning bolt of inspiration.
But that bolt from the blue need not arrive for solitude to show some psychological benefits. And you don't need to emulate a medieval hermit to get the kind of time and space needed to feel those effects either.
Paul Salmon, a psychology professor at the University of Louisville, recommends looking at your quest for solitude more along the lines of a high-intensity interval workout — as a variety of exercise that can be brief and scattered throughout the day but no less effective for it.
Be opportunistic, Salmon says.
"Maybe even go into a room if you have a space that you can go to where you can be alone for a little bit," he says. "And also, to be clear, this is not isolating yourself but simply giving yourself a time to kind of recharge the batteries."
Thuy-vy Nguyen has found that just 15 minutes in solitude can have an effect. A professor at the University of Durham in the U.K., Nguyen was tracking something she calls a person's arousal level: High arousal could mean something good (excitement) or bad (anger), just as low arousal moods could be good (contentment) or bad (boredom).
And in just that brief window of time, Nguyen says she has found that solitude correlates with a drop in those high-arousal moods. That means, effectively, that time alone may simply help even us out.
Solitude can be a communal exercise
Funny as it may sound, pursuing your solitude may help develop your sense of community. By asking others for the time to yourself, and explaining why this is no reflection on their company, Salmon says you are bringing others into your trust, which they may appreciate.
"Explain that it's not like you're isolating yourself and setting yourself apart, but that what you're doing is something of personal value," he recommends. "By doing so, you're inviting other people to at least acknowledge and accept that and possibly even engage in it themselves."
And if even this does not help you obtain a separate space of your own, even for a little bit, remember that in many ways, solitude is what you make it. According to Salmon and his wife, Susan Matarese, a political scientist, also at Louisville, one doesn't need to be physically alone to experience solitude.
Just close your eyes, turn inward for a bit and pay attention to what's going on in your body and what thoughts are going through your brain.
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The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider.