The Science Of Solitude And The Power Of Being Alone


Is solitude just for introverts or monks? Think again. Heather Hansen, co-author of Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone, talks to Peter McGraw about how solo time is essential for our well-being. In this episode, they explore the history and benefits of solitude, why it’s so hard to study, and how anyone can craft positive solitary experiences. From “complete olitude” to “public solitude.” you’ll gain a new appreciation for the power of being alone. Onwards!

Listen to Episode #216 here


The Science Of Solitude And The Power Of Being Alone

When was the last time you had some real solitude?

Just this morning. I was reading an article about a CU Boulder Professor who invented a new type of atomic clock that only loses one second every 40 billion years.

Sounds like a real OCD-type professor. I know that characteristic. You’re on brand as a science communicator.

The moment of solitude was thinking about the vastness of the universe, time, mortality, and however many years we have versus losing one second every four billion years. I had a good thing about that.

Heavy stuff. This will be a breeze compared to that.

Welcome back. I’d like to joke that I feel bad for married people. For example, married people do fewer things alone than singles. I can’t help but think that they need to do everything with a partner. It leads married people to miss out on some of the great opportunities of solitude, whether it’s going to a concert alone or spending time in the desert doing creative work and mushroom trips as I tend to enjoy doing.

Solitude is too often maligned and its benefits are overlooked. Let’s talk about this topic. My guest is an award-winning author and journalist who often writes on topics at the intersection of people, places, and science. She’s done that here today as the co-author of the wonderful book Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone. Welcome, Heather Hansen.

It’s so wonderful to be here. Thank you so much.


I’m glad you’re here. I think the obvious question is why did you want to write about solitude?

It’s an obvious and wonderful question. I think that the answer is probably not as obvious and hopefully, I can get very personal. Let’s go for it. At the time that I was approached to do some research and some writing about solitude, it was a particularly tough time in my own life. I had lost my mom to a rare brain disease and I was living in the UK at the time, which was a strange country to me. I was struggling. I was in therapy for the first time in my life for PTSD in particular, but in general, it was like, all day every day, I was wearing a turtleneck made of thorns that I could not tick off.

It was difficult and I felt like the only thing that made sense, the only thing that felt good to me was to step out to get away from where I was geographically at that moment in time, so I went walking. I went walking all around Great Britain. That allowed me to be on my own doing that grief work that I needed to do. It was easier to be alone and either feeling sad as I needed to or feeling not as sad as I needed to. Not needing to answer to anybody else’s observations or expectations.

That’s one part of why getting out on my own was very helpful. The second part of that is out and walking on my own was the life that I had in Colorado before I moved to the UK. That was something I knew how to do. I knew how to put my boots on. I knew how to tie them. I knew how to put my snacks and water in my backpack.

You’re struggling. This is a low bar.

Yes. I know you have suffered a similar loss and when you get back to basics and you’re putting one foot in front of the other, you know how to do that. You may not know how to live your life without your mother or whoever it is or whatever it is that you lost at that point in time, but you know how to do that and that was very helpful to me.

You were a stranger in a strange land. Fortunately, it is a land that is very walkable.

It is and it’s the land of pilgrimages as well or a land of pilgrimages. It helped me have a purpose and to think about people before me who had walked around the abbeys or the cliff side where I was walking and how they processed their grief or their guilt, which I was also processing at the time, and how they left a little piece of themselves behind and how they struggled through that. That’s thread through Time.

Therapeutic Walking

It’s so interesting. I am an advocate for walking. I think it’s a necessary element of good health. Something you can do hopefully almost all of your life, especially if you create a practice around it. I am a big flaneuring. I self-identify as a flaneur now. It doesn’t have to be, but it’s typically a city behavior and it’s a little bit of a celebratory behavior. It’s like a playful adventure, exploration, open to possibilities, and novelty. It has a fun element to it. I’ve never thought about therapeutic walking. It seems to be what you were engaged in.

I don’t think I knew that’s what it was going to be. I was following my instinct, but I had a firsthand look or feeling and I have been a fan of alone time all my life. At that particular moment in time, I had an understanding of the power of solitude in terms of being able to regulate emotions and recenter, get away from other people’s expectations and gazes, and settle into doing that.

For much of this walking, you’re alone. There’s no one around.

Most often, there was no one around.

Maybe some sheep.

A lot of sheep. A lot of stone walls and a lot of sheep. They were my buddies.

It sounds like this truly was therapeutic and it did help you process this and reconnect, it sounds like. How long did that take was it? Was it 40 days of walking? Was it four months of walking?

It took about a year and a half, on and off. I ended up writing about it. I wrote about I think 60 60-plus places in Great Britain, England, Scotland, and Wales. My favorite places are the northernmost desolate places where my interaction with people could be infrequent.

Are you listening to music or podcasts, or you’re just in your thoughts?

Just in my thoughts? It was very scary. Not in any way you may think.

Not like you’re afraid for your heart or yourself.

Not afraid of my environment. Being alone in my thoughts was the terror and the solace that depended on the moment.

I have to digress for a moment here. I started encountering of wider array of people, thinking differently, and trying different things. I’ve talked to people who’ve done silent meditation, retreats, and groups but no speaking. People do like ayahuasca retreats where they do several trips sometimes across a week. All of these things are tempting but intimidating for me to step outside my rituals and challenge myself. I often feel like I’m falling behind if I’m not working which is my own issue to work through. I talked to a guy who did a five-day darkness retreat. You’ve heard about this.

We do talk a bit about it in the book.

He told me he did five days in a cabin. There’s a shower. There’s a bath or toilet. They give you your provisions for the day and you’re in total darkness for five days. I remember thinking, “I think I need to do that,” and I am not excited to do that.

I think we could be roommates next door to each other.

We’ll tap on the wall.

Just to be sure we’re still existing.

Maybe at some point, we’ll put a pin in that and we can talk a little bit about what might be the value of doing something like that as we go. I’m happy to hear about your time alone and walking in the wilderness. It helped during that difficult time and spurred a new scientific interest. This is the first book that looks at solitude through this multidisciplinary lens, psychology, evolutionary science, history, art, literature, and so on.

Cutting Across Disciplines

It’s a very wide-ranging book. You have co-authors of different expertise. Let’s start with that. Doing interdisciplinary work is sometimes fraught and it’s difficult. In part, I think it can lead you to very different conclusions depending on how you study something. Was there an overarching conclusion that cutting across these disciplines seems to stand out about solitude?

You’re exactly right in stepping back and trying to see a thread pulled through literature, philosophy, and astronomy. Pick a topic. We realized that solitude does touch on all those disciplines in some ways. When you step back and consider that as a possibility, you can see that there is a reason that we have the type of misconceptions that we do today. Those disciplines in their own ways mold our modern perceptions of solitude and of time alone. We begin to understand a little bit more about why, even today, there’s an enduring stigma attached to spending time alone.

These disciplines are conducted by people and people have biases. While science is a search for the truth unbiased, that’s difficult to do. Sometimes these biases determine the questions people ask, the way they go about investigating it, and also science is flawed. Sometimes it’s a search for confirmation rather than a search for disconfirmation which is a weakness that we’re constantly battling. This misunderstanding of solitude can be perpetuated. Is that something you feel to be correct?

Yes, I think so. It comes down to solitude having existed mainly on the extremes like in the margins of whatever you look at historically, different cultures and different traditions. You can see solitude is the purview of religious leaders. Desert fathers. You see Jesus and the prophet Muhammad and Zoroaster go out into the desert or into a cave to have a connection with the Divine. You see intellectual elites like Einstein who even though he couldn’t swim, he’d go out in a rowboat by himself to think.

Artistic geniuses like Georgia O’Keith would walk out into the New Mexico desert and make art and also collect rattlesnake tails in a tin box. She’s a real badass. You can see solitude on the extremes, but perhaps for multiple reasons, you don’t see it in the mainstream. You don’t see it represented in everyday regular people’s lives. That’s what we wanted to do with the research and with the book to bring it back to that center where it’s so obvious in our lives.

We All Have Moments Of Solitude

Yes indeed. I get what your point is. You take some eccentric characters or extreme situations and you view that as prototypical solitude it seems rather extreme, difficult, painful, and risky. What you’re highlighting is we all have some solitude in life moments of it, some more than others. Some people make better decisions than others, but that’s solitude. I appreciate that. It sounds like when you look across these disciplines, there’s a tension between the extreme and the mundane or the extreme and the typical. You might have a difficult time evaluating what the typical is supposed to be like if you’re spending all your time looking at the extreme.

It’s a very good point.

Is there something about the desert that’s special for this more extreme version of solitude?

Probably. I have not thought of that before but I think there’s something about a quiet retreat or a dark retreat. There’s something about some deprivation of the sensory environment that may contribute to that. Maybe that things are paired down in the desert. You have to look more closely. You have to pay more attention.

People won’t talk about doing solitude in the rainforest. Maybe it has to do with time and place and so on. The desolation in some way may have, I don’t know. I’m just curious.

I like thinking about that.

Studying solitude is difficult.

It is. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to do it in a lab setting.

Suddenly, someone is not alone.

I know you know, Peter, that is the difference between qualitative research and quantitative research. Qualitative research is a little bit more difficult, but it encompasses more of the richness and complexity of people’s experiences. At the beginning of my contribution to the solitude project, that’s where I came in to be able to help a little bit with that aspect outside of the lab and talk to people in the context of their own lives, their own spaces, and their own experiences.

The ideal work has both qual and quant and complements each other very nicely. I guess when you’re doing something that doesn’t lend itself to quantitative as much. We’re now in a world where because of technology, you can do a bit more. This was back when I was doing my postdoc. The state of the art was experiential sampling methods ESM. You would like a ping, you would fill out a survey saying where you were and how happy you were, and one of the questions could be “Are there other people with you or not?”

You touch on exactly some of the most cutting-edge research now in solitude. It is trying to tap into what’s happening right now in your experience.

Although even still, that is the social moment. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than sometimes recalling, so asking people to recollect what’s that like.

It’s a good point. We did a talk recently in Cambridge in the UK and a soft-spoken wonderful guy came up afterward and said, “If you’re in that study and somebody pings you, I would feel like that was a social interaction that somebody was asking, how are you? That would lift me right away and if I was feeling lonely, I wouldn’t feel as lonely in that moment.” I thought, “That’s a good point.”

You feel seen perhaps, but then there’s also the other way to go about doing this and this is something that shows up in the book. Across different methods, you start to extract a common set of themes. For example, you could go back and read people’s writing from their time away, and then that can gel with the ESM-type study and so on.

Even the lab studies.

Let’s admit it. We’re both a little biased ourselves. We like our solitude. One of the things that we’re going to do is we’re going to take a little bonus material for members of the SOLO community which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/solo because I have a chapter in my recent book about solitude. It’s a pretty pro solitude chapter as you might imagine. I asked you to read it and you kindly did. You’re going to critique it.

I might cheerlead a little bit.

Solo Self Vs Social Self

Maybe, we’ll see. That’ll be in the bonus material in the SOLO community. You identify these two different types of self. Let’s start with what is the self, this notion of identity and the sense of self, and then differentiate between the social self and the solo self. That seems critical to our conversation today.

I like to think of it, my co-authors hated it when I said this, but I still think of it when I think of that balance and contrast between solo and social. I think we all have a solitude. We have an attitude towards being by ourselves and we have our social self on the other side. Both of these are equally important. It doesn’t mean that we have a formula or a balance for which one science can tell us even though scientists have looked at this. What is the exact number you need? Do you need 50-50 solitude time and social time or do you need 25-75? There’s some indication now that there is a number beyond which loneliness starts to creep in. The solotude and the social self, I think solitude researchers would agree or complementary.

There is your social self which is the person that you are when there are other people around. How you see yourself, how you behave, and your identity. Are you extroverted? Are you introverted? There’s the person that you are when you’re alone. You point out I believe rightly. There’s no escaping except in extreme circumstances those two identities. It can change in a moment. When you leave the solo studio, my solo self will be activated. My social self is activated right now.

Activated solo.

That’s right, but leave it to scientists to try to find the optimal number. They may come up with some optimal number and there’ll be this huge variance around it. The good of that work highlights that you need both. The bad of that work is that it makes people feel bad that their numbers are not that number. “Is there something wrong with me because my numbers are twice as high on the solo self or twice as high on the social self?”

It’s like the studies that tell you how many friends you’re supposed to have to be happy. What’s the ideal number of friends between 1 and 6? I think is the number.

Don’t get me started on my scientific colleagues in this way. When those two cells are out of balance, that seems not a deal.

Balance is key.

The effects of the out-of-balance in one direction or the other are not the same. They have different emotional, psychological, physical, and biological correlates. What are they?

We can think of it as do you want to dive into a little bit of it? I think it’s important to point out the difference between loneliness and being alone. If we think about loneliness and aloneliness, this term was coined by a solitude researcher in Canada named Rob Copeland. Terrific guys. Terrifically smart guy. You have loneliness on one side, which is an evolutionary alarm saying, “You need to change something here. You need to go fill your cup with something else.

You’re out of whack in terms of what you want from social relationships and what you’re getting.” It’s not quantity, it’s quality. That’s an important distinction. On the other side, you have what Rob and another astute solitude researcher, Virginia Thomas, called the “Aloneliness alarm.” That’s the alarm that says, “You are being sucked by emotional vampires. You need to stop and step away to refill your own cup.”

Is that evolutionary or is there something else to it? Is there an evolutionary argument for it?

Not one that I’ve ever seen.

I haven’t seen it either.

It’s very new at least in the science of positive solitude. It’s a very new idea that maybe we could even be evolving towards this because we needed our neighbor’s help to catch dinner and to protect ourselves from predators. We don’t anymore, but our bodies and our brains still tell us that we do.

I have mixed feelings about the word aloneliness.

Interesting. What are your mixed feelings?

I think naming things is important. Naming it aloneliness makes sense but I wonder and I haven’t done the thinking hard about it. Is there a better term for it that is more intuitive?

That doesn’t put it in opposition to loneliness or that doesn’t even partner it with loneliness in a way. They are once a subjective state and once an objective state.

There’s this sense of sadness and loss. Aloneliness has this very stressful feeling in a sense. The experience is rather different.

It’s a feeling of being overwhelmed, I think it is probably one of its hallmarks. Aloneliness, you are feeling maxed out by other people and their stuff, whatever it is. The social environment is very stimulating and energizing but at some point, everybody hits a wall and then that’s it.

Even us extroverts.

Yes, even you extroverts.

I’m not sure I am as extroverted as I used to be but I used to do a New Year’s trip with a bunch of friends. Sometimes we’d be on a road trip. Sometimes we’d fly somewhere. We would be sharing hotel rooms because we were poor. We’d be going out every night. It was great fun. I remember there were times when I was making this waving sound thing with my hand, “You guys go out tonight. I’m staying in.” I need a break. I’m sure if I went out, I’d have a good time. I just need a quiet night to myself.

I have many research subjects from age 18 through 80 from around the world, talking about personality traits that they ascribe to themselves. They are either introverts or extroverts. The people who describe themselves as the life of the party are saying, “I need something else right now. This is not working for me.” Solitude is something that’s for everybody. Not that I haven’t met people and talked to people who have difficulty in it sometimes, but I haven’t met somebody who says, “I don’t ever need to be alone.”

The Loneliness Epidemic

There’s this balance between between the solo self and the social self. Let’s talk about the rise of loneliness. A little bit sort of history of solitude. I think there are some very fun things. We’ll go probably quickly into this. There are different types of solitude that I never have considered before.

Me neither.

If we go all the way back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there was much less solitude for the reasons that you described. To go completely alone was suicide, presumably. I think that’s a fair assessment. It doesn’t mean that there was never a time you were alone, but you weren’t spending a lot of time alone. That was dangerous. Loneliness didn’t seem to be much of a problem for hunter-gatherers.

We assume not, and through all the ages in which most people lived and worked in very close quarters, presumably, it wasn’t a problem. We also have to acknowledge that just like there are today, there are probably moments in which people were by themselves in some solitude. We can talk about the different kinds of solitude. Maybe if somebody was down by the river beating their clothes against a rock or in a noisy sewing factory, they may have had moments when they were psychologically alone. There may have been times that we don’t understand the real richness or context because as I said earlier, mainstream regular old everyday solitude is not something that we have a great record of through time.

As the opportunity for solitude increased, so did the opportunity for loneliness. They are distinct. To be alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely. For some people, there’s this counterintuitive experience where you can feel lonely amongst people.

In a stadium full of people.

A member of the SOLO community asked, “What is the truth about the so-called loneliness epidemic?

The truth is that loneliness is a real issue and it can be very harmful. We have to acknowledge that. Whether or not it’s an epidemic or ever has been, I think we could parse down and look at the numbers and how they have increased over time. We have been talking about the loneliness epidemic. Even pre-pandemic, that threw everything up in the air. We have been talking about it, but much more recently, we have seen from the US Surgeon General’s recent report. He also wrote a book about loneliness in America. We’ve seen from the World Health Organization a recent paper looking at it. We see the rise of loneliness ambassadors in different parts of the world.

What’s a loneliness ambassador?

This is in the UK, Japan, and a number of other places. We now have a loneliness ambassador in New York City. I think it’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

I saw her on Twitter or so often. She’s still kicking.

She is kicking it. She talks about getting older and loneliness. A lot is going on in terms of government reports and mainstream media headlines talking about the loneliness epidemic. That’s I think what makes it a particularly important time to differentiate between loneliness and being alone, and important to look at what solitude is, what is good about it, and what conditions facilitate that.

Solitude Vs Loneliness

This is a big build-up to some of the benefits of solitude. Is it fair to say that the biggest differentiator between solitude and loneliness is a matter of desire?

Yes. I think it’s fair to say that one of the most important predictors of success in solitude is whether or not you think you’re going to find something important or meaningful there. If you go into it thinking, “There’s nothing for me here. I’m going to be lonely. This is a gaping hole of nothingness. This is a black hole of despair.”

The five days in darkness.

I think that is one of the better indicators of whether or not you are going to find a place and positive solitude.

Even the notion of choosing to be alone is super empowering versus wanting to be with others and being unable to do it.

Choices are usually important. It’s a little bit tricky. It’s more important to choose to be in solitude than to choose what you’re doing there or how you’re doing it. You also have to choose it in the right way. You have to not choose it because you’re trying to withdraw from society. You can’t choose it because you want to get away from all people because people are horrible. You’re much less likely to find a space for positive solitude if that is your motivation.

I think the seeds were planted for the solitude project when I was 23 or 24 because it was a recession and I didn’t have things figured out as I was graduating from college. I ended up working as a grad assistant, and so I needed to find a program. I got a job as a grad assistant. I had to find a program to be a grad assistant for. I ended up in an education program for a master’s in educational psychology. My thesis was about loneliness.

I have to admit I have lost the state of the art there but there was work on the difference between social loneliness and romantic loneliness. I found that to be very compelling because I as a 23, 24-year-old was not socially lonely. I had a rich friendship. I always have. I’ve been very fortunate to have both broad and deep friendships and I see them as essential. In many ways, they are the most important relationships in my life. Typically, more important than romantic.

One overlooked how important these are.

They are certainly longer-lasting than my romantic relationships, but I was romantically lonely. I wanted a girlfriend. I wasn’t having success at that. Not surprising as a 23-year-old young man.

You’re not the first young man to experience that.

Fortunately, I recognize that it was my fault not all the women’s fault. That was a good thing. We’ve been talking a little bit about evolutionary things. We’ve alluded to the fact that emotion regulation can benefit from being alone, but there is a cultural element to this perhaps too, which is if the world is teaching you that you ought to have not just a romantic interest but one of a particular intensity, as we call it the relationship escalator, which can be all-encompassing. It’s supposed to be the most important relationship in your life and it’s supposed to solve a bunch of your problems by way it’s presented. The whole package.

You can essentially take someone and make them lonely because you’re teaching them that they should have this thing and of course, the media, the love songs, the rom-com, and everything is reinforcing it because good luck finding media that celebrates solitude. It’s too hard to direct or create a story for someone alone. It happens on occasion.

No major motion pictures are thorough sitting in this cabin.

That’s right. It happens on occasion.

The extreme versions, the wild.

That’s right. I’m going to say that. What’s the one about the dude who goes hiking to find some bus into the wild? Spoiler alert. It doesn’t end well.

It does not.

I wanted to ask your opinion about that. I’m not saying I was victimized by that, but I didn’t have the proper perspective to be able to understand that it was okay the space that I was in.

This is a spot where our work dovetails because the idea that either being solo is deviant or preferring solitude is deviant I think is on parallel tracks. We learn and we’re socialized to think that our path is, as you said, to be in relationships, particularly in romantic relationships. It’s very confusing for people when either they don’t want to do that or they want to somehow balance it. It can be confusing to their partner. It can be confusing even to their family.

Born To Solitude

If somebody is in a very gregarious game-playing family and they need to go to their room or their corner of the basement or whatever and read their book. Sometimes they are the oddball of the family or they are viewed that way. There’s emphasis on relationships which are very important as we’ve already talked about, but we would like the emphasis on alone time to be as important. People who I spoke to for this research talked about what it was like to either be born to solitude as they called it or to have had a good example of that in their lives growing up.

There’s a woman who’s parents didn’t teach her about it, but she learned from her aunt. Every summer she went to the family cabin and would say, “I’m going for a daily walk. I don’t want any company. I’m just going out. See you.” The guy’s uncle who’d go, “I just want to look at my maps and I don’t want to talk to anybody.” They would have these examples of that’s normal. That’s okay. That’s productive.

A well-respected member of the family, someone who is well adjusted. You say born to solitude.

Some people described themselves as always having been comfortable with it. The kid who had no problem playing alone in the schoolyard, even if people were pointing fingers at them or the teachers were saying to the parents, “There’s something not right. They don’t want to play with the other kids,” which is no indication at all necessarily that there’s something wrong with the kid.

Kids can be horrible. That certain ages. Avoiding the bad kids. It’s part of the strategy.

I used to teach for two years. I taught middle schoolers and I have to say that I thought about the kids who had very rich imaginative playtime sitting by themselves under the slide. I worried about them.

It’s very difficult. I’m sure that it was hard to write this book because you have on one hand this cultural conversation, which is to be social, couple up, don’t be a misanthrope.

Don’t be the guy in the basement playing video games all day.

You have this loneliness epidemic. I don’t like the word epidemic but loneliness is a real problem for some people. You’re trying to thread this needle where you’re saying “Yes, but” in that sense. Is it any surprise that you were worried about that kid because the cultural conversation is we should be worried about the kid? No one ever says about the serial killer. He was the life of the party.

You couldn’t get enough.

My own personal story. It’s so interesting to reflect back on these things through the solo lens now. I think I developed my love of solitude very young.

What age is this?

As a tween easily, maybe 10, 11, 12, or 13, it started to happen. I know that there’s research and you talked about it about the value of solitude for adolescence. Parents worried about their son or daughter in the basement or whatever, but that’s an important developmental element there. Mine was beyond that. Mine was a very difficult family environment. A sibling rival in my sister whom I now adore. It happens, an unbalanced mother. A mother who was mentally ill but I didn’t know she was mentally ill. My bedroom was a safe space for me. It was a break from the chaos, sometimes emotional abuse, sometimes physical abuse that I experienced. It’s the shelter. I think you’ll appreciate this. I made the most of it.

What were your favorite things to do?

Reading is one of the biggest ones. I found solace in books and I got to escape into exciting worlds, magical worlds.

The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe.

I mean science fiction and sometimes a little bit of fantasy like tales of knights and dragons, which I would complement with friends playing Dungeons and Dragons. The scary Stephen King novels and so on. As I got a little older, I exercised. I started to build my body so I wouldn’t be bullied and to become a better athlete. Is it any surprise now? If it starts that young and it agrees with you, if you can extract almost all the positivity out of solitude, it’s both escaping the bad people and then approaching the good in creative endeavors and imagination. I guess it makes sense that I don’t want to live with someone.

It does make a lot of sense. At the same time, I’m sure you can agree that it doesn’t make you immune either from ever feeling lonely so there’s a continuum.

I would say this, not anymore. I almost never feel lonely anymore. I feel fortunate. It was horrible to feel lonely. It’s a terrible feeling.

It’s a physical pain in the brain.

It’s agonizing. Especially, if you are not well-equipped to solve the problem.

Interestingly, when we talked about the loneliness epidemic before, the then Surgeon General during the Obama Administration, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, talked about loneliness as a problem, but he also talks about solitude as important to getting to know oneself as the platform for being able to connect well with others. They’re inextricable in a way.

Solitude And Its Types 

We’re 45-plus minutes in and we have not defined solitude. It’s okay. First of all, why is it important to define solitude?

Researchers don’t agree on what solitude is, which makes it difficult to compare apples to apples in the scientific community. We felt like it was important to take all the experiences that we were hearing about ultimately from thousands of different research participants and to distill them down into a definition that we felt represented, was general enough to represent people’s feelings, but also specific enough to pin down the real conditions that needed to exist for somebody to experience positive solitude.

You come up with four types.

Remarkably, people would describe solitude as some of those capital S solitude experiences that we talked about earlier. The religious leaders, the intellectual leaders, and all of that. Most often in their own lives, they would describe it as this lowercase little s. We were intrigued and the more I asked about that, the more I realized they experienced solitude in a multitude of different ways. We came down to four categories of that, which I can dip into quickly if you want to.


Those are the types that we talk about the least in the book, which is complete solitude that we call, with no cultural disrespect, a Buddhist style. We sit on the mountain in the ashram or whatever completely separate, physically and psychologically. For other people, we can sit and focus on what we want. It’s that complete type of solitude that almost nobody experiences unless they’re aiming for it. The second is private solitude, which we call private solitude. That’s the more garden-variety solitude that I think most of us experience.

A quiet night in on your own.

Yes, where you are trying to be able to put yourself at the center of your attention and you have to be psychologically separate from somebody but you don’t have to be physically separated but you’d prefer to be and that’s how you achieve positive solitude.

This was interesting to me.

It’s a revelation to me. I think that some other solitude researchers would disagree with these or find them illegitimate in some way.

You can’t make scientists happy.

I do not. Hopefully, you can get on board with me with this. The final two types are companionate solitude and public solitude. Companionate is one of the most interesting.

That is something I never considered before.

Maybe we all have a friend or a partner or a family member and we talked about childhood in this context. In terms of companionate solitude, we might look at some things you talk about in your book, some female authors. I think you talked about Jane Austen sitting in her living room writing her family members. I would look at that and I would think that is companionate solitude. That makes sense to me as somebody who used to sit in the living room with their mom, reading and not talking for two hours, and having a trusted relationship in a way that you could be completely absorbed in what you were doing and feel secure that you are most likely not going to be disturbed. We have that described to us in the research quite often.

People go on vacation with a friend. They’re going to the museum. They’re looking at different sculptures and paintings. They’re having their own individual psychological experiences, but they’re in the presence of a friend. That segues to public solitude which is people who described to us being on their morning commute in a bus in Reykjavik. It’s one of their favorite times away from their partner and their kids. It’s a moment that they could look out the window and think their thoughts.

Even though the bus is filled with other people.

Most likely nobody was going to engage them in conversation for better or worse, and they felt secure that was a moment of quality solitude in which they could problem solve or self-reflect or some of the other benefits that we see.

Benefits Of Solitude

Especially if you are moving between two places that have lots of people, family household into an office. Having that break from socializing can have those benefits in solitude. What are those benefits?

We heard about so many benefits during the research for the book that we started categorizing them. We first thought about different structures that we might be able to use to represent it to a reader or listener. We thought maybe it’s a layer cake or maybe it’s scaffolding. That didn’t feel quite right because we felt like you don’t need to build upon one experience of solitude to have another positive one. I finally landed on this solitude compass. We have these four cardinal directions north, south, east, and west.

North as you might expect is the true north, the direction of self-reflection, of authenticity, of knowing myself. In a way, you go to that space to reflect and think your own thoughts. We have this Southerly direction. You can think about Southern climates, warm and breezy places we might go on vacation. We go to rest and relax. Our research participants said this is a place where they rejuvenate and regain their energy in themselves. We have East which is the direction of creativity.

It’s the direction of the rising Sun. You get up in the morning and you feel like anything is possible. That’s the feeling you have in this particular area of solitude. There’s the West of course. As a science writer, the prevailing winds in the world generally come from the West. We go West in solitude with the wind at our backs towards prosperity or what we call peak experiences and things like that.

I think that self-reflection certainly resonates with a lot of people to be alone in your thoughts, sometimes making a big decision. Bill Gates famously does his week in the woods. He sometimes makes a very big decision about the direction that he is going to take Microsoft there.

And so goes the world.

I think rest, relaxation, and renewal because people are texting.

Yes, exhausting.

The East is the creativity and enrichment. I think for the people who are seeking to create, that makes a lot of sense. Another female author I talk about is Virginia Woolf, who talks about how women of her day were at a disadvantage. Not only because they had to spend all their time caregiving but because they didn’t have space to create. They didn’t have a room of their own. A lot of creative endeavors are collaborative. Many thrive in solitude. I think writing in particular is one even if it’s public solitude in a coffee shop.

Your corner coffee shop with your headphones on. You’re thinking your own thoughts.

This last one I don’t think is as intuitive about these peak experiences. Can you say more about that?

The types of words that we heard research subjects used to describe this state were feeling grounded, feeling focused, being able to be in the moment, and being able to pay attention. That seemed to lead to a different level of awareness for them. An obvious example of this might be meditation for some people. It could be weightlifting in their garage. Somebody in Switzerland was telling me about it. They’re up in the pre-dawn hours. They have the garage door, it’s pouring rain outside, and they’re by themselves lifting weights, and it’s ecstasy. It doesn’t have to be whatever that big S solitude idea of the sublime is. It just has to be what feels like the peak to you.

One of the things I thought was useful as you differentiated these benefits along two dimensions is this idea of autonomy. You have to do what you want. Part of the reason I love flaneuring is because you’re not at anybody else’s whims. The other one for me personally has to do with my solo mushroom trips. It is authenticity. You can fully be who you are. You don’t have to worry about what other people think of you. I think both of those are useful for whether it be reflection, relaxation, creativity, or this development of peak experience.

You get to be who you are and do what you want. There is so much freedom in that.

Sometimes that means you might have to get ugly with yourself. I’ve come across someone who had given me a book about doing solo MDMA therapy. I’ve never done it. I was reading the book and I was curious why Solo. The author made the argument that no matter how good your therapist would be or guide or whatever the role of the person is, they’re still another person. Consciously or unconsciously you or they can affect the journey because of their presence.

I agree. I think that brings us back to the beginning of walking for me. I was doing that type of trauma therapy in somebody’s office with another person, but I was also intentionally or not doing it on my own. I was left, right, left, right, walking up a hill. I was doing my own therapy and focusing on intrusive thoughts. How am I going to process that left, right, left, right? How do I think about this differently? How do I incorporate this into a new narrative of the past and the present?

Being Good At Solitude

If that took you eight hours versus we only have an hour in the office today, that’s freeing to be able to do that. What makes someone good at solitude? For the person listening, who’s like, “I get it,” but they struggle with the headwinds of culture. Let’s be honest, not everybody likes himself as much as they ought to. When you have to spend time with yourself, you have to come to bear who you are. Some of it is they don’t have a practice. They don’t have a perspective. What would you suggest for the person who’s like, “I want to get better at this, I see the benefits?”

I love that phrase you used, headwinds of culture.

It’s a lot like the headwinds that single people have. When you’re a couple, you have the wind at your back. You don’t even notice it because the wind is at your back. You’ll only notice it if you turn around. It’s not a gale force. It just makes things a little more difficult.

A little bit more of a struggle. In terms of what makes people good at solitude, we’re still learning a lot about what makes somebody resilient in solitude, but we do have food for thought. Some of which we’ve already touched on. People have a tradition of it in a way. They get good at it or at least exposed to it when they’re younger, and then that seems to make it easier for them as they get older. Solitude in general seems to get easier as we get older with a notable dip on the midlife point, which is particularly interesting to me.

Everything dips around midlife though.

Everything sagged in dips.

I think I’m coming out of my dip, which is nice, but I remember reading an article that apes show the same dip.

No way.

These are apes in captivity. I don’t know how much they’re affected by their humans dipping too. I was like, “There might be something physiological evolution that happens.” Once I found that, I stopped trying to fix it.

I’m going to improve on the ape experience.

I was like, “Let me just be patient.”

Just wait it out. I think though what we can also point out from the research is some common attributes that seemed to help people in time in solitude or make them “good at it.” People who are generally optimistic seem to be particularly good at being on their own. People who have the capacity for self-reflection and who can exhibit self-compassion or some of the traits that we see, but even if you don’t have any of that, there’s still hope. I would point to one of the biggest secret weapons that we discovered. That is curiosity. You can either be curious about the world, curious about yourself, or curious about what’s going to happen.

Curious what the solitude is going to do for you.

That type of open-mindedness, even if somebody didn’t consider themself particularly curious in general, that particular type of open-mindedness seemed to help people deal with moments of positive or moments of solitude that they could somehow cognitively switch into positive solitude.

That’s great. You talk about nature in the book as also being a little bit of a hack. Why is that?

There seems to be a combination of being in nature and being alone that creates this supercharged state for people. One major caveat I would say is a story that I heard from somebody for the book, which was somebody who thought that the ultimate male experience was to go out into the woods and go camping by himself and come back with newfound enlightenment.

He went out and he was miserable. He couldn’t get the water filter to work. He was naked in his camp and somebody came through asking for directions. It’s the whole thing, the food was horrible, and everything was a bust. The most fun he had was getting back and telling that story. For some people, nature is not a hack, but for a lot of other people, it seemed like a place where they found positive experiences.

Pro tip, cabin not tent. That’s funny. You talked about Henry David Thoreau. That guy didn’t spend that much time alone. He was the first modern-day influencer, misrepresenting how much he was on his own.

That dude did not do his own laundry.

That’s right. If I were to hire you as a consultant to help me do solitude or suppose I didn’t do solitude so well and I hired you as a consultant to give me some more tips. What would you add to that besides approaching it with some curiosity and optimism?

We talked about a lot of tips in the book. I think we finish out with maybe 10 or 12 of them. We can get more granular on it, but I would say maybe overall, recognizing that solitude is neutral. It’s not good or bad is a good place to start. Thinking about it as a lump of sculptor clay that you can mold into whatever you want to is a helpful platform to step off. In reality, we spend a third of our lives on our own as we get older. We can plan for and shoot for a moment of solitude, but we should all be planning for those moments that we don’t realize are potentially beneficial. You make some good references in your book that allude to some of these tips as well, coming at it from a place of maybe starting small but sticking with it and growing.

In the same way that your social self has challenges. People can be difficult. You have to navigate situations that are challenging. We don’t avoid. We ought not to avoid social situations just because there may be a source of conflict or because it can be uncomfortable. We should not avoid solitude because it may be uncomfortable.

It’s an excellent point. A researcher said this to me recently for a new scientific article I was working on. He said, “Being alone is tough sometimes but this was marriage.”

I opened this by saying, “I feel bad for married people,” because it’s limiting.

It’s amazing that you mentioned that because that is one of the things that I highlighted first in your solitude chapter of the book. I wrote next to it in the margin, “This one makes me think.”

What did I write?

I also felt bad for married people who are likely skipping activities that they want to do alone or getting dragged along to events that they don’t want to.

I think it happens all the time. Just being a good spouse. This is what a spouse is supposed to do. I think that’s fine to be game and to be able to do that, but also there are times when you would be better to allow yourself to be a part and be alone and then come back together with new experiences, refreshed, energized, and so on.

As Thoreau said, “Not to be the old musty cheese of your relationships to go off and get some freshening.”

No one wants to have sex with old musty cheese. I remember the SOLO community asked, “What are some useful ways to reframe time alone when you would much rather be with others.” I think this alludes to that choice element to it.

The research is very young on reframing when you’re in that moment of solitude whether or not you can potentially turn around a horrible mood or a profound sense of loneliness. There’s some anecdotal evidence that there is some cognitive reappraisal possible. I think that offers some at least future paths of inquiry. I don’t know yet. I think you need to be honest with yourself when you’re in that moment. Are you lonely? Do need to seek out some other counsel or do you need to push through? I’ve talked to a lot of people for the book who said that is their problem-solving time.

That is their time to think difficult thoughts. That’s their time to think, “I had this conflict with a friend. What do I want to do about it? How do I want to approach it? I had this fight with my spouse. I got passed over for the promotion. Somebody made a racist remark to me.” Not all of these things are of equal caliber, but in any case, they are moments in which somebody chose to use that time alone to address something particularly difficult and to push through it to problems solve at that time.

I’ll say it since you’re being diplomatic. You could read this book and it would it will certainly motivate you. One of the nice things about the book is I feel very even-handed in the way that you approach the work, acknowledging the risks and rewards of solitude. It is more focused on the benefits and the stuff that’s being overlooked by those cultural headwinds. It will certainly encourage. I think one of the other questions that come from solitude is when you get down to it, if you’re suffering in solitude, it is a call to action.

I often talk about in my relationships, “Do you want me or do you need me? If you need me, I’ll be on the plane. If you want me, I may not be available to you.” If you’re desperate or if you’re struggling, do you have someone that you can say, “I need your help,” and they would be willing to give it to you because they love you and because they all know that you would do the same for them? My heart breaks for those people who don’t have that.


I talked about being able to answer the question, do you have someone to call in the middle of the night when you’re sick or afraid? The people who can’t answer that question affirmatively are struggling. They need our help. They need to start doing some hard work to try to be able to answer that question affirmatively. That highlights the challenges. A couple of quick things before we wrap, quietude.

The love child of quiet and solitude.

It was funny because when I spoke to this guy about this five-day darkness retreat, I was like, “Do you talk to yourself?” He says he doesn’t talk to himself. I talked to myself. I’m a big talker. I talked to myself all the time, especially when I was out in the desert on a walk. I’m like, “Peter, let’s talk about this.” It’s so freeing to be able to talk out loud. I have even done some of these mushroom chips using a voice recorder to capture my thoughts because they can be very ephemeral. Sometimes I end up showing off a little too much and I need to turn this off like, “Now I’m performing,” so to speak.

Right, and possibly thinking about who’s your audience, which maybe makes you inauthentic.

I would say this. I’m not sure I’d be thrilled if the world could hear those voice memos. I’m not going to publish them per se, but I find them to be quite useful to the degree that they are authentic. Why the benefit of solitude plus silence?

There’s a lot of research about quiet and silence now. It was mostly born out of the space in between the noises. People were studying noises and realized what happens to the human brain in between times. I think about the bookends of social time and solitude in the middle. We tend to push through the quiet, not wanting any quiet.

We play music all the time. We wear headphones on all the time.

We push through the solitude as a bridge from one moment of social activity to the next without thinking a whole lot about it. I think the benefit I’m thinking about quiet and quietude is what’s there when nothing else is. Is it really nothing or is it maybe everything? Literally, quiet seems important to the human brain. That does not mean that people cannot have a positive solitude experience if they’re jamming to Metallica. Just like the person who’s miserable in the woods and camping, they want to be alone in their room singing loudly, practicing their guitar horribly, and that is their highest quality solitude. There is no one-size-fits-all, but there is some benefit to quiet if you’re willing to experiment with it.

It sounds worth considering how much you’re filling up your space with noise, and it can be pleasant noise

It’s what we call in the book sneaky infiltrators. We could think about technology potentially in this way. That’s a minefield. There’s not enough science to say if technology disrupts the quality of your solitude.

Of course, it does.

It seems to help adolescents at least. If they’re teens, they say they are less lonely.

It was fair. I’m teasing a little bit.

It’s important to think about if you’re doing that, what are you potentially opening the door to. Are you opening the door to authenticity? Are you alone but on Instagram trying to show off?

You’re alone and you’re swiping on the dating apps.

I think quiet is another aspect that could be interesting to explore if you haven’t done that.

Quiet sounds like it can be metaphorical in a sense.

There’s a literal quiet and there’s a figurative quiet.

Peacefulness, almost.

A quiet mind where you can hear your authentic thoughts. Where 24/7 potentially marinating in other people’s thoughts nowadays. Social interaction on every platform that we have can be very energizing. Groupthink historically has ended poorly in a lot of ways. You have to be able to step away, take a beat, and think about who you are, who you want to be, and what you want to contribute to the world. That’s a moment to do that.

I’ve started a meditation practice. It’s been a little fitful but it’s there again, which is good. It all seems to be you don’t have to be alone to meditate but it seems that there’s some usefulness to it.

A lot of people are not alone when they meditate. Millions of people meditate online together and that companion or public solitude is still legitimate and that’s still legitimate meditation, but it looks a little bit different. You have to be open to that idea in the legitimacy of that. I think being alone and meditating strips away things we may worry about that make solitude less relaxing or less authentic for us. We worried about whether we’re sitting in a yoga studio about how we look or how we’re breathing.

My ohms are too loud.

Somebody is disturbed in some way.

You can say it, flatulence.

That’s the ever-present fart in a quiet down or dog moment. I think there are things we need to be open to in terms of quiet or meditation or solitude in general, but there are ways we need to be open to considering these moments that we have in a different way and the legitimacy of the benefit of the potential of those moments.

Well said. I’ll give you a parting thought. Is there something that you want to reflect back that we’ve covered or something that you feel is essential that we haven’t covered that you don’t want to end on?

I would just remind people that we have been doing solitude to some extent all of our lives individually. It doesn’t have to be a big scary blank thing. You already know how to do it if you can be open and curious about it. I think those are some of the most important aspects of it. If you can find meaning in it and find some importance in it, then that is the most likely moment of success for you of positive solitude.

We’re going to take a little bonus material next. You’re going to give me a grade on my chapter. People who want to access that can do that through the SOLO community which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. Heather, thank you for writing this wonderful book. Thank you for your time in the SOLO studio today.

Thank you. I wish we had endless moments, but then I want to go and be by myself.

Likewise, cheers.


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