Another proven benefit to solitude is development of self. Away from others, a person may discover their identity or work through personal problems without outside distractions. Solitude always provides time for contemplation if we want to use it that way.
Isolation from other humans allows for a more complete connection to the natural world, which takes on the role of companion. One can gain a better understanding of the natural world when entirely removed from the human perspective. And, some of us are introverted and need to spend time away from people to recharge.
In the digital age, it’s easy to avoid spending time alone with our thoughts. In fact, many of us 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 6 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.
Needing time alone doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us or that we’re antisocial. One psychologist says, “Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. 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.”
Writer Ernest Hemingway said that writers must spend time alone to do their best work. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said that a writer “does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
Steve Wozniak, pioneer of the personal computer and co-founder of Apple, has said that most inventors and engineers he knows—including himself—work like artists: And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee.
We’re used to the idea of brainstorming being done as a group effort, but psychological studies have shown that it’s often best done alone. Various studies suggest that people are better at working through complex problems when they work alone than they do when working in groups.
One study of 56 adults, done in 2012, found that after spending four days immersed in nature, participants improved their performance on a creative problem-solving task by 50%. For office workers, 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.
My own experience as a partner in a public accounting office agrees with those studies. I was much more productive when I worked on weekends, with no phones ringing, no music in the background, no colleagues to interrupt my train of thought. And, of course, no clients needing my undivided attention. I know that some people like to have music playing when they work or write, but I find it takes a certain amount of effort to shut out the sound so I can concentrate on my task, effort that should be going toward the task.
But, of course, you can’t run a service business with the doors locked. And most of us don’t want solitude all the time. A comfortable balance is my goal.