It’s important to remember the benefits of solitude

Nov 08 2019

It’s important to remember the benefits of solitude

“Loneliness is the poverty of self: solitude is the richness of self.”
–May Sarton

Keeping track of an adolescent’s social life can be an exhausting task.  Study after study testify to the phenomenon of FOMO (fear of missing out.)  As a result, teens rush from one event to the next and sometimes suffer from social exhaustion. So, how do we help them learn to not only tolerate solitude but to revel in it?  

A recent article in the New York Times called “Why You Should Find Time to Be Alone With Yourself: Don’t confuse loneliness with time by yourself,” by Micaela Marini Higgs extols the benefits of solitude.  The article points out that being alone can “benefit your social relationships, improve your creativity and confidence, and help you regulate your emotions;” in fact, “because solitude helps us regulate our emotions, it can have a calming effect that prepares us to better engage with others.”  

As you can imagine, the difference between the pain of loneliness and the pleasure of solitude sometimes comes down to a matter of choice. Once, after watching the cinematic classic “Citizen Kane,” I considered a paradox. One of our society’s most conspicuous signs of success is the ability to live in an isolated mansion like the fictional character Charles Foster Kane (based on the real William Randolph Hearst;) however, being in solitary confinement is perhaps the worst punishment a person can receive. Is being alone a good thing when we choose it but a bad thing when it’s chosen for us?  

Sometimes, the difficulty in being alone stems from a fear of how we’re being perceived.  As the article states, “Overestimating how much other people are paying attention to us, and worrying that we’re being judged, can stop us from doing things that would otherwise bring us joy.”  I recall once when I was in college and eagerly anticipating the night in front of me-a home cooked dinner and a quiet, solo walk to the Kennedy Concert to see a favorite jazz ensemble. My father called while I dined alone and enjoyed a thrilling novel; when he heard me describe what I thought was the perfect plan for a delightful evening, he grew quiet and said mournfully “I’m sorry you couldn’t find anybody to go with you.”  In the bat of an eye, I went from feeling excited to feeling pathetic. The night turned out well, but there were moments of self-doubt. 

So, how do we help our social media saturated youth learn to enjoy time alone?  Initially, we need to convince them that solitary moments are gifts to be relished.  There’s nobody else’s plan to follow, no pressure to fulfill another person’s expectations, and they can discover something new unburdened by any constraints.  Time on one’s own allows for self-exploration and finding new interests. While being alone can feel daunting initially, after a while, it settles in like a pair of worn shoes. 

As Higgs explains, people “should treat yourself as you would treat others. Be open to exploring new interests. Make space in your life and put in the time, even if it’s just 30 minutes a week reading at a cafe.”  The article advises that if loneliness feels overwhelming, people should journal to try and understand their feelings. Higgs also points out that there are many options for things to do from seeing movies to making crafts.  This time can provide an escape from the demands of the phone and the tyranny of social media.  

Convincing our children of the benefits of solitude may be challenging.  However, like so much else that can be difficult at first, once they experience time alone and become comfortable with it, children and young adults will find it restorative and rejuvenating. There may be nothing we can give them that will be as valuable as learning to revel in their own company.  They may even learn to protect their alone time zealously as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.


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