Why we need our ‘capacity for solitude’ and how technology is slowly killing it

Being alone with your own thoughts is vital for creativity, decision-making and living a good life, says new book Lead Yourself First, yet these days people spend nearly all of their free time looking at one or more device screens

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 5:07pm

As our lives become ever more connected, there are so few places we can go to truly switch off any more.

Take aeroplanes. These were once disconnected sanctuaries where you had nothing to do except read, daydream or doze off – “a retreat in the sky”, in the words of one Buddhist monk. That’s no longer the case. On a flight recently, a teenager across the aisle from me wasn’t just watching a film, but watching a film on one screen and playing games on another. A nearby passenger was working on his laptop, checking Facebook on his smartphone, and watching a show on the small television in front of his seat. We may be “alone”. But we’re not really alone.

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A lot of attention has been devoted to how technology is scattering our attention and corroding our relationships; less, though, is focused on how it’s impairing our “capacity for solitude”, our ability to be happy by ourselves with only our own thoughts.

We’re so overstimulated that being alone has become unbearable. This fact was highlighted in a series of studies from 2014, where people preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting still alone in a room for six to 15 minutes. In the lab, we shock ourselves; in real life, we reach for our phones in a lecture hall, when queuing – even when we’re driving.

But to live a good life – and to become mature individuals – we need to be content with being alone with our own thoughts. That’s because the only way we can come to understand who we are and think through critical life decisions is through the self-examination that occurs in solitude.

This is according to a new book, Lead Yourself First, by Raymond Kethledge, a US Sixth Circuit federal judge, and Michael Erwin, CEO of the Character & Leadership Centre in North Carolina. The book tells the stories of many inspiring leaders throughout history who relied on solitude at crucial moments in their lives, from Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II to Martin Luther King Jnr and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Through meditation, prayer and writing, they refined their thoughts, found inspiration and developed moral courage. Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, wrote memos to himself to clarify his thinking in the lead-up to D-Day, while Jane Goodall discovered the social habits of chimpanzees – and their remarkable likeness to humans – by exploring Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park alone.

If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely
Sherry Turkle

Many of the most crucial discoveries and innovations in science and art were also forged in the crucible of solitude. T.S. Eliot conceived of his masterpiece The Waste Land while on sick leave at a hospital. Only when the mind is at rest can we actually hear ourselves think.

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But as the authors point out, you don’t have to lead armies, corporations or artistic movements to benefit from solitude. Kethledge and Erwin tell the story of a Texas mother named Dena Braeger who relies on solitude to raise her children.

One day, one of Braeger’s daughters was being mean to her sister. “I was super irritated,” Braeger said, “and I disciplined her in the moment.” But her response didn’t end there. She spent two days thinking about the incident and realised that what really bothered her was her daughter’s quickness to take offence. She wanted to inspire her daughter to overcome this weakness, and it was her solitary reflections that led her to this insight.

So rather than telling her daughter what she was doing wrong, she would talk to her about her strengths, and then gently point out where she could improve. She told her daughter “that people will disappoint you at times you expect and don’t expect, and that a more peaceful way to go through life is not to be constantly offended by these things”. For Braeger, solitude led to a creative and thoughtful form of discipline.

Of course, creativity is one of the many benefits of solitude. One study by the psychologist Reed Larson showed that adolescents who spend time alone are less likely to be depressed, do better in school, and feel less self-conscious when they are by themselves.

Paradoxically, it also strengthens our relationships. Studies of children at device-free summer camps show that they became more empathetic after spending time unplugged. “You have nothing to do,” one boy said, “but think quietly and talk to your friends.”

Sherry Turkle, the social scientist who has conducted some of this research, says that, in solitude, “we find ourselves”.

“We prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours,” Turkle says. “If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognise other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.”

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Though solitude brings many benefits, it is quickly being crowded out of our lives. Our minds are constantly assaulted by a sea of inputs: texts, emails, ads and notifications. According to psychologist Adam Alter, author of the book Irresistible, people spend nearly all of their free time – those precious three to four hours of each day – in the company of a screen. This means they spend virtually no time alone.

But there are ways to make space for solitude in our lives. In his book, Alter suggests this simple tip: put your phone far away from you when you’re working or trying to be alone. That simple barrier will make you less likely to check it frequently.

He also mentions the example of a German company that automatically deletes employees’ incoming emails when they’re on holiday. That way, if they want to unplug, they really can. If your company doesn’t have a policy like that – and it probably doesn’t – you can engineer something like it in your own life by, for example, deleting the email app on your phone when you’re on holiday.

Kethledge and Erwin also offer advice. If you want to reclaim solitude, they suggest you should take advantage of the moments of solitude already programmed into your life. You don’t need to go into the wilderness for 40 days to be alone – you just need to turn the music off when you’re driving to work or preparing dinner, or leave your phone in your pocket when you’re waiting in line or for an appointment.

It requires discipline, but brings many rewards. The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said the capacity for solitude is “one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development”.

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Though it can be hard to resist the siren call of technology and sit still with your own thoughts, part of being a fully developed human being is making that difficult choice. When there’s no solitude, there’s no self-examination – and without self-examination we can’t grow and become better for ourselves and for those around us.

Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. She is an instructor in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.