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.
The productive discomfort of being alone
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.”
Award-winning Danish author Dorthe Nors learned about the role of solitude in the creative process from director and writer Ingmar Bergman. When interviewed about what she’d learned from reading Bergman, Nors noted that the solitude necessary for creative work can be both challenging and painful. “When you sit there, alone and working,” she says, “you get thrown back on yourself.”
Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you … You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.
Nors says it takes courage for her to sit with herself and face all the feelings and memories she’d rather run away from.
And that’s what Bergman and other Swedish writers have taught me—to stay in that painful zone, discipline myself through it to get where I want.
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.
It’s not just artists who know that solitude is necessary for their creative processes. Steve Wozniak, pioneer of the personal computer and co-founder of Apple, says most inventors and engineers he knows—including himself—work like artists:
And artists work best alone—best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee.
The science of solitude
While there’s plenty of research on the painful physical and emotional effects of loneliness, science has also shown that people who are comfortable with solitude can experience a number of benefits. For one thing, research by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that teenagers who had trouble being alone were less likely to develop their creative abilities. (You need to be okay with solo time in order to practice the violin or concentrate on your comic strip.) Meanwhile, researcher Reed Larson has shown that adolescents tend to report feeling less self-conscious when they’re alone—a state of mind that’s important because it frees us up to pursue our creative impulses.
Psychological studies have also shown that brainstorming is often best done alone. Such findings may appear counterintuitive, since we often associate brainstorming with a group of people gathered in a conference room or around a writer’s table. But studies suggest that people are better at working through complex problems when they work alone than they do when working in groups.
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).
A guide to flying solo
The best way to overcome the challenges of solitude is to practice it more often. One suggestion is to spend time in quiet, rural settings. One 2012 study of 56 adults found that after spending four days immersed in nature, participants improved their performance on a creative problem-solving task by 50%.
If you work in an office, another option may be to 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.
So if you work in a creative field, try scheduling a little more solitude into your day. And brush away any fears that alone time makes you a hermit. With people like Hemingway and Wozniak on your side, you’re in good company.