The Benefits of Isolation

What can we learn from being alone?

This is the pond that Henry David Thoreau lived by for the duration of his Walden experiment.

This is the pond that Henry David Thoreau lived by for the duration of his Walden experiment.

“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden

166 years ago Henry David Thoreau, a young American Transcendentalist, ventured into the woods around Walden Pond in Massachusetts to live in a self-made cabin for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days. Transcendentalism, inspired by the ideas of Plato, Kant, and romantic artists, is the philosophical belief that “divinity pervades all nature and humanity”. In practice, members of the social and philosophical movement would either isolate themselves or participate in communal living on a small scale to connect with the natural world. So, when he set out, Thoreau’s intentions were to practice near-total isolation and self-sufficiency in order to connect with life.

Granted, people today are not isolating by choice nor are the conditions in 2020 remotely the same to those in 1854. Thoreau lived in a small New England town and complained about the railroad lines. Imagine how he would feel about Zoom and all of our virtual communication methods. And in consequence of the current pandemic, there is no alternative to this reclusive state.

To many, solitude is a struggle and naturally, this makes sense. As humans, we are creatures who crave social interaction and physical connection with one another. Freud recognized that solitude is a common source of fear anxiety in most humans, particularly at young ages. It has been shown that prolonged seclusion can even negatively impact physical health. And, in an increasingly connected world, isolating oneself becomes increasingly difficult.

But, as terrible as it may seem, solitude has benefits as well. Philosophically speaking, Thoreau recognized that solitude helped him gain a greater appreciation for the life he saw in nature and his own life, an appreciation he claimed to lead to substantial self-improvement. Psychologically speaking, however, solitude can help improve one’s ability to regulate and process emotions, better the social skills of an individual, increase productivity, empathy, and creativity, and often has a calming and restful effect on a person.

Think of it like sleeping. When a person is alone, they are given the time to think, often involuntarily, much like a dream. And, similar to waking up after a good dream, isolation gives the person observing it a sense of refreshment, a chance to distill your mind and move on. Whereas people often find themselves thinking about others and the way that they are viewed, being alone lets a person’s thoughts ponder other things, including oneself. Isolation creates time to process thoughts and emotions. It opens a door for self-reflection and puts a person into a restful state so that when they are ready to interact again, they feel refreshed and aware.

People have long stigmatized seclusion. The descriptions of “alone”, “lonely”, or “reclusive” have very negative connotations. But, when asked what a person finds the most relaxing, most people respond with a solo activity. So, while people long for interaction, we also long for time to seclude ourselves. The only way to experience the benefits of isolation is if we can take on a mindset that says “This is okay for now”. Being open to being alone makes the actual experience exponentially more fulfilling.

The situation we find ourselves in is awful. I know, it sucks. But, try to take some advice from Mr. Thoreau. Shift your perspective for even just 20 minutes, sit somewhere comfortable, let your mind wander, and breathe. We can get through this together even though we’re miles apart.