April 19, 2022 by Lauren Gombas
"I'm learning so many different ways to be quiet. There's how I stand in the lawn, that's one way. There's also how I stand in the field across from the street, that's another way because I'm farther from people and therefore more likely to be alone. There's how I don't answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I'm not home when people knock. There's daytime silent when I stare, and nighttime silent when I do things. There's shower silent and bath silent and California silent and Kentucky silent and car silent and then there's the silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can't be quiet anymore. That's how this machine works."
-Poet Ada Limón's "The Quiet Machine," from Bright Dead Things
In Ada Limón's poem above, which experience do you think the speaker is exploring? Loneliness? Solitude? Both? While the beauty of poetry rests in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, the beauty of this poem is that it’s difficult to tell. Despite the speaker being alone in the activities they explore, simply being alone doesn't necessarily equate to solitude or loneliness.
Although loneliness and solitude are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Loneliness is associated with feelings of unwantedness and emptiness. It’s about not being with other people or feeling unwanted by other people. Loneliness is heavy as much as it’s empty; it weighs on our minds and our bodies.
As you can imagine, loneliness has been correlated with negative health outcomes, such as mental health disorders, Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, and heart disease. In addition, loneliness involves an involuntary type of social pain caused by a lack of connection, regardless of physical proximity to other people. In other words, loneliness is a sense of isolation that persists even when other people are present.
Solitude, in contrast, is the choice to be alone and use that time either for reflection or simply enjoyment in one's own company. It’s about being present with one’s self rather than the lack of company. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Epictetus, Montaigne, and Petrarch all observed and wrote about the benefits of solitude. Aristotle once noted that contemplative acts should be solitary, free from outside influences. It’s in our choice to be solitary that we release our judgment, open ourselves up to our imagination, and allow our creativity to take charge. In doing so, we open ourselves up to new possibilities, develop stronger problem-solving skills, and learn more deeply about ourselves and the world around us.
Solitude is a choice. We can ebb and flow between solitude and being social. The option is always there to connect back with other people, and to do so rather seamlessly. Loneliness, in contrast, can't be turned on and off.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose work includes New York Times bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, and a book on creative living called Big Magic, knows a thing or two about the benefits of solitude. She dedicated her life to being a writer, and as the saying goes, writing is a lonely profession. Gilbert understood the need to make her solitude a choice and not a state of being. She developed strategies to show up for herself to be present with her thoughts as she puts pen to page, and to do so intentionally. She also understood when it was time to collaborate to garner inspiration and produce great work.
Gilbert advocates strongly that we all learn to “walk into a restaurant alone.” In other words, that we become so comfortable with ourselves that we don’t tie any negative feelings to thoughts of doing things or even simply existing in solitude. One fun recommendation Gilbert has is to pretend that you are leaving for a business trip. This gives you the excuse to be off the grid and away from distractions. With this time, she encourages people to pursue a creative endeavor.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who studies self-awareness and emotion, notes that constructive internal reflection or a deep internal focus requires solitude. Many creative people use internal reflection as a starting point for their most creative work. This reflection helps us connect the dots between recently acquired information and more complex ideas.
One way we can be alone with our thoughts is through daydreaming. While daydreaming has been touted as problematic for youngsters in school, recent research on daydreaming has shown that it’s an excellent way to tap into our creativity. The idea is to practice more structured daydreaming to help focus your thoughts and develop creative solutions to the challenges or problems in your life. The key to daydreaming: solitude. To paraphrase the writers of Wired to Create, the stereotype of reclusive and introverted artists presents this truth: to do good creative work; we must be alone with our thoughts.
The brain's ability to go back and forth between deep solitary, imaginative work and external focus indicates well-being. Wired to Create authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire remind us that "Far from being an indicator of negative personality traits or mental illness, the capacity for solitude may be a sign of emotional maturity and healthy psychological development."
Research shows that having the ability to shift back and forth instills good psychological health and is essential for the healthy development of cognitive control, emotional regulation, and better insights.
Better insights from this ability to shift into deep imagination might be why great thinkers can connect deeply to nature or a higher power. Solitude, in other words, can be a means for connecting and encountering the mysteries of life rather than escaping from one's relationship with the world, oneself, or other people.
To begin moving from loneliness to solitude, one first has to track their emotions. Negative emotions have an especially haunting impact on humans, forcing them to believe harmful untruths and pushing them into rumination or spiraled thinking patterns. Naming negative emotions can help put us in the driver's seat by helping us understand why we are experiencing these emotions and empowering us to choose what happens next. Then, when we have the power to decide what to do with our thoughts and emotions, we can decide for ourselves when the alone time feels lonely and when we are practicing solitude.
Loneliness and solitude are not created equal. Loneliness relates to a sense of lacking, a feeling that something is missing from a person’s life. Loneliness doesn’t just impact our mood, but can have a negative long-term impact on our physical and mental health.
In contrast, solitude can allow someone to process their thoughts, explore ideas, and generate more empathy. Solitude is chosen, is enjoyable, and requires strong emotion regulation. Solitude empowers people with the opportunity to be themselves, to like themselves, and see the beauty and the gift in one's own company.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. “Part IV Persistence.” Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear, Riverhead Books an Imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016, pp. 160–161.
Kaufman, Scott Barry, and Carolyn Gregoire. “4. Solitude .” Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Ebury Digital, London, 2016, pp. 46–46.
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