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Solitude as Medicine

0 2 years ago

If you’re a person who genuinely enjoys spending time alone, you’ll recognize this scenario:

You’ve finally carved out some time for yourself, and you’ve been anticipating it for days. Finally, some “me time”—no work, family, or social obligations, and the luxury to spend your time however you please. Then you arrive at the appointed hour and settle into the quiet.

Only… it’s too quiet. The bright mood you had evaporates, and you suddenly feel unsettled. You start to get restless. Random thoughts and memories flash through your mind. Anxiety might arise, only to be replaced with sadness, or boredom, or loneliness. At this point, you’re tempted to abandon the whole enterprise and head back out into society, or at least grab your phone and distract yourself with social media. What is going on? If solitude is supposed to be so good for you, why does it often feel so bad?

If you’ve ever gone through this sequence of events, you’re not alone. Psychological research has documented the multiple benefits we get from freely chosen solitude, ranging from opportunities for contemplation and creativity, to increases in well-being.

However, these same researchers have also been candid about how difficult solitude can be, comparing it, for example to, “a medicine which tastes bad, but leaves one more healthy in the long run” (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1978, p. 691). The reasons for this may be due precisely to one of the major functions of solitude: emotional regulation. Two sets of studies have shown that it is predictable for our moods to lower when we enter solitude—even freely chosen solitude that we have looked forward to.


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