In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to avoid spending time alone with our thoughts. If we don’t have family, friends or colleagues nearby, we can just whip out our smartphones or fire up Netflix. In fact, we so dislike solitude that we would rather administer electric shocks to ourselves than just sit and think. That’s right—in studies that asked participants to spend six to 15 minutes in a room without any other stimulation, a significant portion (67% of men and 25% of women) opted to zap themselves just for the sake of breaking out of their brains.
But being alone doesn’t have to be the same thing as being bored or lonely. In fact, when the word “alone” was coined in medieval times, it referred to a sense of completeness in one’s own being, according to Ester Buchholz, a psychologist and psychoanalyst and the author of The Call of Solitude. According to Buchholz as well as a many other psychologists, solitude is an important—and normal—part of human existence. And it’s also essential for our best creative work.
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Getting comfortable with solitude can be difficult, given that our associations with it these days tend to be negative. As Buchholz writes:
Invariably, solitude meets with social questioning, if not censure. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk taking. Perhaps most striking, solitude conjures up pangs of loneliness.
But needing time alone, according to Buccholz, doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or that you’re antisocial. In fact, she says, it’s important that we clear away the chatter and let our minds wander: “Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems,” she writes. “Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
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Writer Ernest Hemingway also said that writers must spend time alone to do their best work. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said that the writer’s life is a lonely one:
Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
Link to the rest at Quartz and thanks to Randall for the tip.