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Winifred Lender: Exploring the Benefits of Solitude — Tips to Make Your Alone Time Growth-Enhancing

In our new digital world where we are virtually connected to others and “plugged in” nearly all of our waking hours, true time alone has become a rarity. While people may be physically alone as they drive to work or shop in the grocery store, they are connected to others virtually through their digital devices.

Take, for example, the woman posting on Facebook photos of herself while walking her dog alone on the beach or the man texting a friend while he eats lunch at a table for one. The more we are driven to stay connected, the more we may be losing the ability to enjoy solitude. Learning to appreciate alone time is a process that requires: breaking free of negative views of solitude, valuing the importance of time alone and learning how to structure this time to make it enjoyable.

The first step in embracing solitude is to become aware of your beliefs about alone time. From a young age, we learn that children who are “bad” are sent to time-out to be alone. Society reinforces the notion of solitude as a punishment through the penal system where the worst offenders are placed in solitary confinement. Social media also present solitude as an undesirable option. If you look at social media sites you will see a plethora of photos that contain only couples or groups of people as exemplifying the “good life” and relatively few of individuals enjoying time alone.

All of these messages help to condition us to equate time spent alone with loneliness.

Mounting research is showing that solitude, when it is a choice and not borne out of fear or anxiety, has a number of benefits. Studies show that time alone can be good for our energy levels, creativity, productivity, memory, mood, attention to tasks and stress level.

For example, researchers at the University of Illinois followed teens during alone and social time and found that while the teens were not happier during alone time, they reported that they felt better after they spent time alone than they did before. Moreover, the researchers found that teens that spent between 25 and 45 percent of their non-class time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression. In fact, Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, argues that  today in our always connected digital milieu, we need to think of time alone as part of our daily regime of health.

Once we understand how we are conditioned to view solitude negatively, yet can appreciate its benefits, the natural next question is how much alone time is necessary and what does solitary time look like. There is no consensus on how much alone time is needed, rather it depends on each person and varies by day. Finding the “just right” balance is a work in progress and requires some experimentation and trial and error. Finding the space to carve out alone time can be challenging in our high intensity culture.

Below are some suggestions as you explore how solitude can benefit you.

» 1. Put digital devices aside and enjoy the solitude as you go about your day. Instead of jogging while listening to a podcast or checking social media while eating lunch alone, embrace the alone time without these distractions.

» 2. Challenge yourself to engage in activities, such as going for a walk, attending a lecture or going to movie that you usually do with friends and see how solitude makes the experience different.

» 3. Find alone time at the beginning or end of your day. Waking up a little earlier or staying up a little later can allow you some solitude to book end your day.

» 4. Taking a solitude break and letting others know you are “off-duty” for a time can allow you some alone time. Turning off your phone, telling others you are busy, in effect putting up a do not disturb sign, can allow you this precious time.

» 5. Try not accepting some invitations to be with others. If you are feeling overtaxed, overtired or emotionally overwhelmed look at ways to carve out more alone time and see if the solitude can help you recharge.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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