Peter McGraw kicks off a series on solitude with a scientific look at the topic. In this episode, he speaks to Robert Coplan, a psychologist working at the leading edge of this complex, fascinating topic. They discuss the problem of loneliness, but also cover the opposite problem: being alonely. Aloneliness is the stress that people feel when they don’t get enough alone time. Peter and Robert also talk about the solo’s freedom to pursue solitude and how solitude leaves them unencumbered to pursue vast benefits: personal growth, rejuvenation, reflection, and creative pursuits.
Listen to Episode #78 here
The Science Of Solitude
Welcome back. This episode kicks off a series on solitude, which covers the wide range of possibilities that solitude presents. I speak to Robert Coplan, a psychologist who’s doing work at the leading edge of understanding this complex topic. We talked about the problem of loneliness, but you will likely learn a new word, aloneliness, which is the mirror of loneliness. Aloneliness is the stress that people feel when they don’t get enough alone time. One of the fascinating and useful insights is that regardless of whether you want a lot or a little bit of solitude, you are normal. Loneliness and aloneliness occur when there’s a discrepancy between what you need and what you have with most people wanting some amount of solitude.
As you might guess, singles often have the freedom to pursue solitude when they want it, and that solitude leaves them unencumbered to pursue its benefits. Those benefits are vast, personal growth, rejuvenation, reflection and creative pursuits. You know my saying for you, remarkable solos, create more than you consume. We finished with Robert presenting some ways to explore finding the right amount of solitude. If you’re looking for what to do with it, I suggest you reread Solo Thoughts Episode Five: A New Narrative for Singles. There are ideas in there that could be helpful. As always, please rate and review the show and tell others about this amazing series on solitude. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Robert Coplan. Robert is a full-time Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University and the Founding Director of the Pickering Centre for Research in Human Development. His research focuses on wellbeing and developmental psychopathology among children, adolescents, and young adults. His research projects explore experiences of solitude across the lifespan and across cultures. He’s the author of Quiet at School: An Educator’s Guide to Shy Children and is an editor and contributor to The Handbook of Solitude. Welcome, Robert.
Peter, thanks for having me.
I say this a lot, I’m always excited, but I’m especially so for this one. This episode kicks off a series on solitude. I wanted to take an academic and scientific look at this to understand what I have now realized is a surprisingly complex topic. I even learned a new word prepping for this. We’re going to be talking about solitude, loneliness and aloneliness. I had never heard of it before and that’s about to change. I was telling Robert before we started, and people don’t know this, but I’m a real psychologist. I’d read your work. I’m like, “This is good.” You’ve been doing this most of your career. How did it happen? How did you get to where you are?
I’ve been working on this stuff for many years now, which seems crazy to me. I was trained as a developmental psychologist. From the early parts of my career, I was particularly interested in children when they had the opportunity to play with other kids instead of spending time off by themselves. We spent a lot of time watching kids on the playground and the kindergarten playroom. We were particularly interested in those kids who, despite opportunities, tended to be off by themselves.
The first part of my career, our primary focus was on shy children who were playing by themselves because they were nervous and anxious. They probably wanted to engage with other kids. They wanted to make friends and they wanted to play, but they ended up by themselves because that desire to play with others was inhibited by feelings of fear and self-consciousness about being around other kids. A good chunk of my career has focused on the causes of shyness, the implications of being a shy child, adolescent and young adult. Also, looking at how shyness is expressed differently in different situations and across cultures and even looking at some early intervention programs that are designed to help shy kids.
At the same time that we were doing that work, I also started to get interested in this other group of kids who were spending time alone, not because they were nervous and not because they were self-conscious or embarrassed, but they seemed to like it. They seemed quite content. They were drawing pictures or building stuff with blocks. If somebody came along and gave them an attractive invitation to go play some games, they do that. When they’re done, off they go and back to doing stuff by themselves and that got me interested in solitude as a place where the good stuff can happen.
One of the things that’s fascinating about this is the tendency for people to think solitude is bad. It’s a punishment in some families and cultures.
Solitude, historically, has a bad reputation. Go all the way back to the book of Genesis, “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” There are all these ideas that essentially flow from that initial assertion talking about all the things that we miss out on by spending time alone. Developmental psychologists would say, “If you spend too much time alone, you’re missing out on all the good stuff that we get from hanging out with our friends.” We know the peer group is this great context for learning social skills, how to solve conflicts, how to cooperate and negotiate, and it’s good for our language skills. Even how our brain develops is influenced positively by hanging out with friends. All the good support that we get, shared intimacy, and all the fun that we have from being with our friends.
Having sex with people is fun.
Indeed, but the concern, especially among younger kids is they’re spending too much time alone, they’re missing out on these opportunities. Over time, they’re going to fall behind on acquiring these skills and practicing their skills. That could lead to difficulties later on. Generally speaking, humans evolved to be in groups. That is part of the human condition. We are generally happier when we are together. From an evolutionary perspective, it protects us from predators, gives us access to share resources, helps us with food and even reproduction.
There are good reasons why humans tend to form in groups. One of the problems is all these things are true and I would never dispute them but it’s been too much of a one-sided discussion. There’s been all this talk about the negative aspects of solitude and what happens when you spend too much time alone. There are negative implications related to that. We’re trying to push back a little bit but that’s not the only thing that we should be focusing on.
That’s why you’re here. To preview this, I want to do some definitions. Let’s talk about some of those costs because people will be familiar with them, some from their own experience, and certainly from headlines, news reports. We’ll talk about some of the benefits and some of the predictors. This might end up being a two-parter. That can happen sometimes. Let’s talk about some definitions. How do you define solitude? Let’s do a little bit of a lesson on science, so there’s a definition. What researchers do is operationalize something. There’s controversy around these two things. Let’s go with your definitions and operation.
After studying this for a while, the first thing that became clear to me is for something that seems like it should be fairly simple and straightforward to define and measure, solitude is complicated. Let me explain why. Some people think about solitude as a physical separation from others. You have this classic picture of a man on a deserted island. That’s the first thing that pops into everybody’s mind when they think about solitude. Even if we go with what seems like an objective definition of physical separation from others, it’s still not clear how far apart do you have to be from someone to be considered alone? Is it out of sight? Is it that you can’t hear anybody and they can’t hear you? If you are a teenager at home with your family with the door closed, are you alone?
The door needs to be locked.
If it’s not locked, somebody can come in. We’ve got all these issues around a physical definition, but then some people think about solitude more as a perception, a state of mind. You can be alone in a crowd. Adolescents will tell us they feel alone and lonely sitting at the dinner table with their parents. People sitting in a crowded coffee shop, and they like ambient sociability, but they wouldn’t mind considering themselves to be alone.
There’s no real and agreed upon definition about at what point are you no longer alone. To make things even more complicated, now we have these technologies that allow us to be physically alone but virtually talking to a whole bunch of different people. You and I are chatting for a podcast and we can see each other’s faces on the screen. You’re alone in your room over there and I’m alone in here but how alone are we?
I’m in my closet. That’s how alone I am.
Fair enough. We can see each other and we’re having a conversation, virtually face to face. When we’ve asked teenagers about this they will tell us that doing this, talking face to face with a friend on a screen is something that they do when they are alone. As far as they’re concerned, they’re alone but would a psychologist define that as truly being in solitude if you’re having a face-to-face virtual conversation with someone?
For the readers, they’re like, “Tell me what it is.” This is important because if you do research on this and you write a paper, the people who are reviewing the paper care much about what the definition is and how you measure this thing. A change in definition or change in measurement can change the conclusions that you draw and it can call into question the veracity of your findings. This is an important nerdy subject.
Sometimes people don’t even define it that clearly even when they measure it. The most common way that solitude is measured is you’ll ask someone, “How much time alone did you spend in the last week.” Without a definition, you’ll let them decide how much time they consider themselves to be alone. Whereas other people will make a strict definition and make you spend time alone. They’ll put you in a room with the door closed and no technology for some period of time and say, “That is true and the purest form of solitude.”
That seems unfair because what if the experimental treatment is we’re going to have you in a group and the treatment is you have to go to a rave or you have to be in a room packed with 25 people.
It’s the most extreme form is what you’re saying. It’s not surprising that people hate that. There’s this great study that was done a few years ago with American undergraduate students. They were made to sit in a room for fifteen minutes alone with no tech. They were on their chair and they were supposed to be alone with their thoughts. They hated it. They hated it so much that the majority of the participants would rather self-administer a painful electric shock than sit in that room for fifteen minutes.
I’ve always hated that study because it gets interpreted in the wrong way. Imagine if you said this, “We’re going to pack you into a subway car, shoulder to shoulder with people. Would you rather that or self-administer a shock to yourself?”
Solitude is almost secondary to that effect because, to me, it’s boredom. You’re able to do absolutely nothing for fifteen minutes. That’s not what solitude is for most people. In fact, we know from some of our work that doing nothing while alone is about the least frequent thing that people report doing when they are alone.
We’re going to return to that. I appreciate that. This preview to some of the future episodes that we’re doing where we dive into what people do with their solitude? No one says, “I sit in a room for 40 minutes and do nothing.” If they do, they’re meditating with a divine purpose. How do you define solitude? How do you measure it when you do your studies, in general, at least?
I would say that we use some combination of physical separation and perceived separation. We are also guilty sometimes of asking adolescents and young adults, “Tell me how much time you spent alone.” We do give them some definition, not around other people and not sleeping. That’s generally how we would define it. There is a consensus about what alone and solitude mean among the general population. That’s what we try to take advantage of.
There’s some element of the physical separation from others and there’s some element of what you’re doing with that time.
You mentioned that you’re going to have a later discussion about what people do when they’re alone. We asked a big sample of high school students what they did when they were alone over a week, and not surprisingly, screen time was the number one choice by a lot. There are so many different kinds of screentime. Some of them talked about playing video games, scrolling the web, or more actively texting with friends and even video chatting or FaceTiming with friends was something that adolescents could define themselves as an activity that they could do while alone. We have to examine what solitude might mean in this age where you’re no more than a glance at your phone away from having social interaction with someone.
Masturbation was next on that list.
I’m not sure that they’re admitting that on the survey.
Let’s talk about two other terms that have already come up. Loneliness and aloneliness and we’ll get to the connection to them later.
Loneliness is probably the most typical feeling that you get if you spent too much time alone. Almost all previous research on solitude is focused on what happens if you get too much solitude. Typically, loneliness is dissatisfaction with your social life. Importantly, it’s a combination of being dissatisfied with how much time you’re spending with others, but also the quality of that time. You could feel lonely in a roomful of people or at the dinner table with your parents if you’re a teenager. It’s not being around others that makes you feel less lonely. It’s also the quality of your experiences, but then the quality of that social interaction. It’s important to think of loneliness as a discrepancy between how much and the quality of social experiences that you would like and how much you’re getting.
Anytime that there’s a discrepancy in the wrong direction, you feel lonely. Loneliness sucks. Loneliness has been compared to physical pain in terms of how it impacts us. It has short-term and long-term implications for our mental health and even our physical health. Long-term social isolation and loneliness predict cardiovascular problems and even mortality. I want to talk about the other side of the coin and some of the positive aspects of solitude, but we can’t dismiss the negative components. As we’ll see, most people would advocate some kind of balance there, but we can’t dismiss the huge amount of evidence suggesting that loneliness sucks and it’s bad for us. I don’t want that message to be lost when we shift into our discussion of the other side of the coin.
I’d like to rebalance this, too. There’s this term aloneliness. Admittedly, I’d never heard of it before. That’s how out of balance things are.
The reason why you hadn’t heard of before is that I made it up in 2020. It’s brand new. This is a new concept that we have introduced into the literature. We conceive of it as the mirror image of loneliness. Whereas loneliness is the discrepancy between your desired social life and your actual social life. We conceptualized aloneliness as the discrepancy between how much time you would like to spend alone and the quality of that alone time, and how much time you get to spend alone.
People think about loneliness as the failure to meet the need to belong. The need to belong is thought of as this inborn need of humans to affiliate with others. If you’re not, then there’s this longing or pain that you’ll feel as a result of not meeting that need. We thought of aloneliness as the failure to meet the need for solitude. Some people have argued that we have a need to belong and a need to be with others, we also have a need to spend time by ourselves. The important thing about both of these terms, both loneliness and aloneliness are about a discrepancy.
There’s not an absolute amount of time that everybody should be spending alone or should be spending with other people. Anyone who is telling you that is full of crap because it’s different for everybody. Everyone has their right amount. It’s one of the things that we talk about for solitude. We think it follows what we would refer to as the Goldilocks Principle. The Goldilocks Principle for any psychological phenomenon is that it’s possible to have too much. It’s impossible to have too little the size of the chair or the size of the bed in the story. For every one person, there’s that right amount, but that right amount is different for everyone and that’s the challenge. It’s the challenge to find that balance where you can find that right amount of social interaction not to feel lonely and the right amount of solitude to not feel alonely.
There shouldn’t be people reading and saying, “Hallelujah. I am not a freak.”
That’s one of the things that we hope to bring to light when we started researching this phenomenon and asking people about it. Like loneliness is associated with negative outcomes, poor mood and stress. It turns out aloneliness is also similarly associated with these negative outcomes. People who are not getting enough time alone are more prone to feeling stressed, negative moods, and even symptoms of depression. For a lot of people, if they’re not even aware that this is a thing, they might be walking around feeling grumpy or feeling sad and have no idea that they need to maybe pay a little bit more attention to their balance between their time with others and time alone. If that balances off in either direction, it can cause these negative feelings.
I want to reiterate something that you said that is important, which is, wherever that peak amount is, it differs for everybody and also differs depending on where you are in life.
That’s an unanswered question so far as loneliness goes because we’ve started looking at that thing. Yes, you would predict that it would change as a function of where you are, what age you are, what your life circumstances are, and we’ll talk about later, maybe your personality, maybe what culture we’re living in. There are all these other factors that are likely going to be associated with these things.
The last thing is you and your team created the solitude and aloneliness scale. It has items like, “I wish I had more time to be alone with my thoughts. If it were possible, I would go out by myself more often.” It’s trying to capture the fact that people don’t have enough solitude.
Every item on that scale, which we’ve spent some time developing and looking at how the items go together and are they measuring what we think it’s measuring and all the scientific, nerdy psychometric analysis that you’re supposed to do when creating a new measure. The content of all of the items is always supposed to be reflecting that discrepancy. I wish I could have more. One of the things that make us feel like we’ve measured what we think we’re measuring, which is the validity of our scale, is that aloneliness is not associated with the overall amount of time that you spend alone. We don’t think it should be because it differs for everybody, but it is associated with a desire to spend more time alone, plan to spend more time alone, and having more positive attitudes towards solitude. They are all things that we think would make you more likely not to get enough solitude.
Responses to the solitude and aloneness scale are not correlated with the amount of time you spend with the overall amount of time alone.
This is what we hope for because it’s not about more or less time alone. It’s whether or not that amount of time alone meets your specific personal need, your personal threshold.
When I say correlate, for the layperson here, it means that between two variables, there may be a positive association as one gets higher so does the other one. There may be a negative as one gets higher and the other one gets lower or there may be none. Movement on one has no influence on movement on the other. What Robert is saying is the responses on this scale, whether it’s high or low, have no relationship between how much time you spend alone.
What we’ve found is you have to look further than the amount of time spent alone. People who spend less time alone but have a positive attitude towards solitude, that’s the group that ends up reporting the most of aloneliness as we would expect.
I’ve got this. This is about discrepancies. People know enough about loneliness. It’s been well documented and clear. Loneliness can be a problem, no doubt, especially as you mentioned people who don’t want to be alone, people who are lacking connection, and the problems that can cause for them. This is what I’m most interested in and this is what people don’t know, don’t think about, and is completely overlooked, certainly in the popular world and it seems until you folks came along in the world of academia, which is what are some of the benefits of solitude?
The idea that solitude can be a good thing also has a long history. There are tons of passionate essays written by poets, philosophers and even psychologists. They’re talking about all the good stuff on how solitude should be good for us and how it can allow us opportunities for self-reflection, religious experiences, creativity, restoration and exploring your identity. People have talked. I believe that this is all true. When I got into the study of solitude from this angle, I was a little bit surprised in terms of research support, the empirical evidence that what you would use if you were trying to justify these assertions from a scientific standpoint. It’s still pretty lacking.
That’s one of the reasons why we’ve become increasingly interested in this approach and this perspective because I know it’s true. What we’re trying to figure out is how can we show it? How can we demonstrate it? How can we prove it? What evidence can we use to demonstrate some of these positive components? One of the challenges that people have been having is we still don’t know what the active ingredient of solitude is.
What is it specifically about solitude that infers positive benefits? There’s lots of research to suggest that being alone in nature is good for us. That’s good research. When you go for a walk in the forest, your breathing slows down, you get less stressed and your heart rate slows down. It’s good for a reset. It’s good to relax your attention. You’re not always focusing on quickly changing things in your environment. Everything slows down in a good way.
The problem is, you don’t have to be alone to get those benefits. People have done studies where you walk with two people or a group of five people. There still benefits from being in nature that doesn’t have anything to do with being alone. We don’t know specifically what being alone adds to that. People talk about mindfulness meditation. There’s great and growing literature to suggest that this is also a good thing for us.
Having a mindful approach to life and practicing mindfulness meditation reduces stress and it’s good for our well-being. If you are good at mindful practice, you should be able to engage in mindful practices even in a crowded room and reap the benefits from those experiences, even if you’re not alone. What is it specifically about being alone that adds to that experience? What is the active catalyst of being by yourself that infers these positive contributions? We’re still trying to work that out.
I can tell you what it is, Robert. I’ll save you a lot of time.
Save me some grant writing and paper writing.
Other people can be a pain in the ass, distracting, stressful, and don’t allow you to necessarily be your true self. I’m being cheeky.
You’ve got what we have come to learn that might be an important contributing factor. There are certain circumstances where being alone seems to be the most positive and those circumstances seem to have a lot to do with your motivation for being alone and what you’re doing when you’re alone. In social psychology, people talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation is something more from the outside. You’re doing an activity because you’re following the rules. You are doing it because you’re scared not to or you are avoiding punishment.
When I was young, I took a lot of piano lessons. I hated practicing and I hated playing scales but my parents and teacher made me. I couldn’t see what the good in it was. I did it but I did as little as possible and I don’t feel like I got anything out of it. Let’s contrast. Intrinsic motivations, you do something because you want to. It’s meaningful for you. You’re engaged in what you’re doing, you can see the purpose, you’re trying to prove yourself and it’s enjoyable.
When I got a little bit older, I started hearing songs on the radio, I was like, “I want to play that song.” I would sit down to try to play it and my fingers wouldn’t move fast enough. I was like, “That’s why I have to play the scales.” I would go and practice every day because it was a purposeful activity for me that I could see the positive aspects of and I was internally motivated to do it. That’s a bit of a segue. To get us back to solitude, it turns out that when you are engaging in solitary activities that are meaningful for you that are intrinsically motivated, that’s when solitude seems to offer the most positive outcomes.
This reminds me of a story I heard about Eddie Van Halen, one of the great rock guitarists. His brother who played drums would leave in the morning for work or school or something like that. Eddie would be sitting on the edge of his bed playing guitar. Eight hours later, his brother would come home and Eddie was sitting on his bed playing the guitar. If you need an argument about the benefits of solitude, you don’t become one of the great rock guitarists without spending hours alone working on your craft in that sense. This previews a future episode that I do with Mason Currey. Mason wrote a delightful book about the daily habits of great artists, scientists, and so on. Almost across all of them, there is some element of solitude within their creative practice.
You were talking about how solitude is good because people are a pain in the butt. Part of the idea of being in solitude is that it is a relief and a release from the demands of being around other people. Most people are aware of people’s perceptions about them when they are with others. They think about how other people are looking at them, thinking about them, or acting towards them. They’re always trying to gauge their behaviors to fit into whatever those perceived needs are and that’s exhausting.
This is Zoom fatigue.
If you’re staring at yourself while you’re having a conversation with someone else, you’re always hyper-aware of, “What do I look like to this other person? What are they thinking about?” Special people tend to be a little bit more socially anxious or self-conscious. They have those evaluative concerns. A lot of time and energy is put into thinking and worrying about what other people are thinking about them. Solitude is a respite from that. It’s a relief from being around others if that can cause a strain for you. It’s also a chance to be the master of your domain. You’re in charge. You’re doing what you want and when you want it. That type of control and that type of steering the ship can be a great relief for people.
When I teach, it’s exhausting. I’m an outgoing, extroverted, and energetic teacher but part of what gets me exhausted is such a highly evaluative situation. Also, I don’t always want to wear pants.
Zoom works for you. These are the benefits of the pandemic. Don’t show me. I don’t want to know. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Let’s recap a few of these things. It sounds like solitude can remove distraction, stress, and anxiety. It can then also add flexibility, freedom, and opportunity. Those are two elements. Is there something else that does that?
One thing we also know about solitude is that it takes the edge off of our emotions. Being in solitude doesn’t necessarily change. The technical term is the valence of your emotion. It doesn’t make your emotions more positive or more negative, per se. It makes them less intense. If you are feeling agitated and jumpy, it’ll calm you down. The best way I can describe is it takes the edge off your emotions and makes them less intense, both positive and negative, which can be a good thing. It’s decompression in that way.
We’ve all said, “I need to be alone.” You’re pissed off. What happens is when you’re happy, you don’t often want to withdraw. You want to lean in and celebrate. I have this happen. I’m like, “I need a little time to myself. I need to get this sorted.” Someone who might be well-meaning is trying to help you cope, soothe you.
That’s part of the message we’re trying to get out around the concept of aloneliness. Especially during the pandemic, many people are thrust into solitude that is unwanted and it’s resulting in serious difficulties with loneliness and depression. Other people are thrust into situations where they can’t get a second for themselves. If you are a working parent of young children who are learning at home and you and your partner are both at home and everybody is in the same space, let’s say there are four of you in the house and three of them are raging extroverts. You’re trying to get a little time for yourself. They’re looking at you like you’re an alien because they don’t understand, “What do you mean any time by yourself? Time for yourself is what we do as a punishment?” They don’t understand that could also be a reward.
There are all these paradoxical parts of solitude. You mentioned, it’s a timeout for toddlers and solitary confinement, but it’s also a reward. It’s me time when you’ve had a busy day and you want to do it. Solitude is something that is normal. It’s something that we all experience across our lifestyle but it’s also a symptom of psychopathology. Mental illness can be predicted by time and solitude. It can be a result or a symptom of solitude. Too much solitude can be a symptom of mental illness, but it’s also a normative behavior.
It could be good, bad, normative, a sign of psychopathology, reward, or punishment, all at the same time, which makes it a complex topic. It’s got so many different sides. Probably the most important message I would say to your readers is that the reason for this is because all types of solitude are not created equal. This will lead us into some of the causes of solitude is because what causes you to spend time alone is a critical predictor of your experience of that time alone.
I want to reflect on two things before we move on. This reminds me of a story of a good friend, happily married and with three wonderful children. I remember him telling me one day how happy he gets when his flight gets delayed. He suddenly has a 1 to 3-hour block of time that wasn’t anticipated. He says that he goes to the bookstore at the airport and buys a book and sits and reads the book.
Been there, done that many times. That’s an important message. If you’re in a relationship with someone, it’s not an indication of a poor quality relationship if you’d want to spend some time by yourself sometimes. That should be a normalized message and that should be something that people should be able to say to each other without having it negatively impact the quality of the relationship. That’s a general message for everybody.
It’s okay to ask for some time alone. It’s okay to take that time alone. Not everybody can go for a two-hour walk in the forest every day. What we found is that even micro-moments, even small little snippets, a chance to catch your breath, step outside, go into your closet and take it a few moments of me-time. A moment for yourself can go a long way towards recharging your battery and giving you the energy you need to face the rest of the day.
I’m an extroverted guy. I’ve become less so as I’ve gotten older. I am one of those people who likes to be alone in a cafe. That’s my happy place. The energy of the space and the people watching, but I’ve got work to do that I wanted to.
That is an extrovert trait. You want that ambient sociability. The noise in the background and stuff that’s going on feeds you a little bit while you’re doing your work. Most extroverts are quite averse to spending time alone. For them, it’s a draining experience. If you are extroverted and you want to get yourself going and you want to get revved up, you go and be among people and that gives you energy. Being alone is almost the opposite. You could do it, but it’s tiring for you. Introverts are often the opposite. They will be among people. They don’t necessarily feel nervous or anxious, but it’s tiring after a while. If they want to recharge their battery, they need a break from all that stimulus and they go off by themselves.
We should cover this now since we’re on it, but that this is important. For me, as an extrovert, the pandemic has been difficult not because I’m alone. I like living alone. I like my space the way it is, but it’s been hard because I’ve been locked in. I like to be in motion as I like to say. I like to be out and about. My apartment is a home base to shower, to keep my stuff, to sleep and to recharge, but I like to be out in the world. I haven’t been able to do that enough.
Even though sometimes I like being out in the world, I travel alone a lot. It’s interesting reflecting on this. I have an episode on flâneur, wandering a city alone. I was going to put it as part of the solitude series and I decided that I wouldn’t impart it because I wanted to publish it. I was so excited about it. It’s a wonderful episode. Also, the author, Federico, who wrote this book about flâneuring talked about how you’re not truly alone as a flâneur. You are amongst the crowd. I like to flâneur. I like to walk a city alone in part because it connects you to the crowd. In hindsight, talking to you, I could have easily put it.
Being alone in a crowd is some people’s definition of solitude. I’m sure you discussed this, it’s liberating to be able to wander around the city and be able to take in the sights and the sounds, but not know anybody. There’s freedom in that experience, but you still get to absorb the energy of the people and maybe interact a little bit here and there and get a sense of where you are.
He makes an argument that you can’t flâneur with two people. You can’t truly flâneur because you’re not wandering because one will exert his or her will on the other one to do this so you lack that freedom. When I was a younger man, we would do these new year’s trips every year. It was a group of us. Sometimes it was a small group, sometimes it was a huge group, a dozen of people or so. We would go somewhere and it was social. We were out every night and doing stuff all day.
To remind you, I’m an extrovert. I was one of those leaders of this group. I would often plan these trips. At some point in the trip, I’d be like, “I’m staying in. Go out without me.” I needed a night to myself. That’s me as an extrovert and it’s pretty obvious why I tend to like people around me. Even as an extrovert, I need some of that alone time in part because I like the freedom. People are still stressful. It seems clear that the introverts of the world are going to prefer more solitude.
Introversion and extraversion are much broader traits than being around people and being alone. They do with impulsivity, sociability and risk-taking. There’s a lot of different things that differentiate people who are more extroverted and more introverted. It’s important to use terms like extrovert and introvert, but these are personality traits that go from 0 to 100 if that’s your range across everybody in the world. Everybody is somewhere on that scale. It’s not at this point and higher, you’re an extrovert, and at this point and lower your introvert. Most people have characteristics of both. There’s only maybe 10% to 15%.
At that high end, it would have all of those traits and characteristics at each end. The vast majority of people in the world are both. They have some characteristics of extraversion, introversion or somewhere on that sliding scale. Generally speaking, introverts might feel more energized when they spend time alone. It’s a chance for restoration. It’s a chance to be removed from too much stimulation, which is often something that happens to introverted people.
I will say this and perhaps it’s a controversial set of findings. When we are around other people and interacting with them, it generally makes us happier, even if we’re introverted. For example, there’s this great study where these guys in Europe approached a whole bunch of people for they got on a commuter train. They gave them some personality tests, measured their mood and they said to half of them, “Sit by yourself,” and the other randomly determined half, “You initiate a conversation with someone on the train.” When they caught up with them an hour later, regardless of how introverted or extroverted they were, for everybody, speaking to someone on the train had a more positive mood. They were in a better mood when they got off the train.
My colleague at Carleton University, John Zelenski, has done some amazing work where he forces introverts to act extroverts. He brings them into the lab and he gives them a script and he tells them, “For the next hour, while you are interacting with his other people, I want you to pretend that you’re extroverted and act in that way.” When extroverts are forced to act as introverts, they generally report being happier afterward.
On the other hand, extroverts are forced to act like introverts, hate it. It’s only a one-way street. In terms of mood, generally speaking, humans are happier when they are with other people regardless of their personality. Even if they don’t think that they are going to feel happier when they are interacting with others, that’s not the only outcome that we’re interested in. That’s a positive mood. That’s one measure of well-being and it’s one measure of who we are. There are lots of other things like spending time alone that might be positive and might offer us benefits besides necessarily having a more positive mood. It is a bit of a controversial finding because it’s been replicated pretty extensively. It goes against this idea that introverts if we make them act with others, it’s going to come at a cost.
With these mood effects, I’m not surprised by them. They are with limits. Being introverts act as extroverts all the time.
They’ve probably run out of steam.
When you talk to someone on a train, they’re polite. One of the nice things about our lives, mostly, is we get to choose whom we spend time and interact with.
Also, how much of that. When we’re talking about causes, it’s mostly about choice. It’s about being in control of how those experiences go and that’s why this pandemic has been so hard among so many other reasons. It’s removed a lot of people’s choice about how much time they spend alone and how much time they spend with others. It’s created situations where it’s always alone or it’s always with others. If it’s beyond your control, if that social experience or solitary experience is being imposed upon you and forced upon you from these external circumstances, that’s when it’s most likely to be the most negative experience. Anything that we’re forced to do or we don’t have control over is generally going to be not experienced in a positive way. It’s when we choose to do it. That’s getting back to those intrinsic motivations I was talking about before.
Robert, I don’t like people telling me what to do.
You’re not alone.
That’s been hard on me. There are these mood benefits to often being with others, but this has been a topic of conversation in a lot of previous episodes, including an episode on What Makes A Life Remarkable?. As humans, we’re not always pursuing positive emotions. Also, what has been a topic here is this fancy word that I use a lot on the show called heterogeneity. We are different. We have different values, beliefs and lifestyles. Those things change depending on where we are in life. They change depending on context.
You were talking about introversion versus extroversion as a trait, but it can also be as a state. You can have a context that makes you skew one way or the other. When it comes to heterogeneity, other people live remarkable lives not by experiencing more positive emotion, but by doing other kinds of things. For example, things that are meaningful, creative. Let’s talk about some of those benefits of solitude a little bit more.
I’m glad you put it so explicitly because I tried to make it clear that a positive mood is not the be-all and end-all. It’s something that could contribute towards well-being, but it is by far not the only thing that contributes towards well-being. You talked about meaning and self-exploration. Some of these things, creativity, spiritual experiences, some of these things that we think solitude affords us, you can’t get as well in other circumstances in other contexts. That’s the critical thing.
It’s all about balance. I love that you’re using the term heterogeneity because solitude is heterogeneous. It’s different things. It can mean different things. It can be caused by different things and it’s experienced differently by different types of people. That’s what helps make it so complicated and that’s why we have all these mixed and almost paradoxical findings in the literature about solitude being all these different things at the same time.
What I want to do is I want to normalize someone’s desire for solitude. I don’t want someone to not pursue solitude because they’re afraid they’re going to be lonely because if they want it, and they’re using that time well, they’re probably not going to be lonely. I want to normalize the fact that some people want lots of it and other people don’t. I want to ask you about some of the predictors of a desire for solitude and also whether people experience solitude adversely or not.
There’s a researcher named Luc Goossens. He talks about affinity for aloneness versus aversion for aloneness. That’s an interesting way to look at the approach and avoidance of solitude. People who have an affinity for aloneness generally enjoy spending time alone and people, who have an aversion for aloneness generally find solitary time unpleasant and aversive. Solitude should be something that everybody should experience. How much depends on you and we’ve made a point of trying to repeat that. A little bit of it is good for everybody.
It’s almost to be prescribed not by a specific amount but there are people who are averse to spending time alone could probably benefit from spending a little bit more time alone like people who are averse to spending time with others could probably benefit from spending a little bit more time with others. It’s all about finding that balance. To repeat, because it’s so critical, that balance is different for everybody. There’s a huge range about what is normal and okay in people that heterogeneity of experience of solitude should be normalized. There’s not a prescribed amount of time alone. There’s not a surgeon general’s recommendation of you need to spend X amount of time alone. It’s something that people need to sort out for themselves mostly through trial and error.
What I often suggest that people do is to keep a little diary for 1 or 2 weeks and monitor their solitary and social times. Monitor your mood and see if you can see connections between the two over 1 or 2 weeks or something and maybe try to make some adjustments if you can see a pattern of your mood worsening after certain amounts of time alone and certain qualities of experiences with others. It’s not something that we triggered to pay attention to, which is whether or not our need for solitude is being met. For a lot of people, they might have this free-floating feeling of being grumpy or sad and not know where it’s coming from. It could be figured out by monitoring their social and solitary experiences over some period of time.
That’s about the amount. If I would press this diary a little bit, it’s also to pay attention to how you’re using that time.
It’s the quality of that experience.
How is that helping you, as I say, live a remarkable life? Are you using that time to reflect, journal or make something? Robert, this thing is to create more than you consume. For example, you can be alone, sitting on the couch, consuming a television show, watching a movie. That may be restorative. You’re tired at the end of the day, it may light you up. It’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s a documentary, so you’re learning, but you could also be writing something, painting, putting something together, or whatever that creative endeavor that also can transport you into a flow state, which is pleasurable. Ironically, time seems to disappear when you’re in a flow state. Suddenly, you may spend hours and hours alone and you don’t even notice that time has passed.
It’s important that you’re talking about the quality of your solitude and your alone time. We’ve had some preliminary results to suggest that you could be spending a lot of time alone and still be feeling alone. The reason for that is because you’re not engaged in these meaningful, intrinsically motivated solitary activities. You’re not doing a hobby. You’re not listening to music. You’re not reading. You’re not creating. Instead, you might be ruminating, worrying, wandering around aimlessly or maybe staring at a screen. Those experiences don’t satisfy the need for solitude in the same way that these intrinsically motivated, engaged and meaningful experiences do.
A previous guest talked about how a lot of this is trite. Humans are social creatures.
I agree, but that doesn’t change anything that we’ve talked about.
I imagined hunter-gatherer societies. You need the crowd and team. You need some people hunting, gathering, making the meals, caring for the children, and sharing these responsibilities. If you went alone, you’re going to have a hard time. However, there were people in there who were in the thick of it more and people more on the edges. There were people like, “I’m going to go out hunting alone” or “I’m going to go out gathering alone.” Some of them need a break from that smelly and annoying person or they’re having a disagreement with a partner, a friend or something. For some of them, they want to collect their thoughts.
From an evolutionary perspective, there’s a reason why we still have introverts and extroverts in the world. It’s good for humans as a species, that not everybody is bouncing off the wall, extroverted risk-taking sociable, not looking before they leap, running off, and doing things in large groups. It’s good that we have some of those people, but it’s also good that we have people who are a little slower, quieter, who may think a little bit before they act, reflect, plan and organize a little bit.
There’s a reason why these differences, this heterogeneity still exists because all aspects of that continuum are good for us under different circumstances. It’s good for the species as a whole, that we have this variability, we have people who are more one way and more another way. When people say, people are social animals, and we should all be spending time together, that can be true and it can also be true that we need to spend time alone.
These are not either/or. It’s a gross oversimplification to discount one because of the other. You can feel lonely and alonely at the same time. You could be spending time with people but not high-quality time so you’re dissatisfied with that part of your life. When you do get to spend time alone, it’s not enough or it’s not doing stuff that you want to be because you’ve got too many chores to do or something. These are not mutually exclusive things, either. You could be dissatisfied with multiple components of your social and asocial life.
To say it in another way, it’s naive to say, “Humans are social so we should be more social.”
It’s one thing.
One of the things too is we no longer live in a hunter-gatherer world. I did a whole episode on innovations that have spurred the rise of single living. What has happened is, as a result of being able to afford to live on your own because of the rise of apartments or birth control because you can still now have sex and not have to have a family as a result of it or even things washers and dryers. There’s a lot of things that allow urbanization.
Access to food and access to critical resources that you would normally have to be in a group to make sure that you got it and now you can get it on your own.
I have DoorDash. What has happened is, as a result of that, you’ve seen an increase in people living alone, mostly because they can. There was a time no one lived alone because it was impossible.
People probably have always wanted to but now the circumstances exist that people are able to and they’re probably happier as a result. If the circumstances were such that there was less choice so people with these characteristics, who might have been happier spending more time by themselves but couldn’t because society was at a point where it was possible. Now they are able to do that. That’s wonderful.
These are my readers, not all of them but many of my readers are solos. I would say that there is some element to the average reader who does appreciate more solitude than the average non-reader is my sense of this. One quick thing and this is a weird fact that I came across with. Some evolutionary biologist or someone has a hypothesis about the value of loners. A loner is someone on the far end. These are not people who are in the middle of your Goldilocks hypothesis. They’re on the far end of desiring solitude. There’s an evolutionary benefit of those people in the case of a massive extinction event. Imagine if the pandemic came along and wiped out 95% of society. It’s those loners who would, in theory, come together and restart.
Whether they would come together or not is another question.
That is one of the benefits you’re having with a small group of people. Even our loners are valuable to us. My argument and this is something I don’t know is when it comes to things art and science scholarship ideas go we find those coming out of people who are disproportionately comfortable with solitude. That solitude makes the world, whether it be it in innovation, culture, art richer.
There are certainly tons of anecdotes, stories and books written about people who have removed themselves from society to different degrees to facilitate the pursuit of their science or art or etc., there’s a lot of those. The anecdote doesn’t prove the theory, but it’s pretty compelling when you listen to the stories. It’s hard to imagine those types of accomplishments occurring in other circumstances.
I want to finish with two things. One is a set of prescriptions and you’ve already given one. I’m a big believer in journaling and writing in a diary or whatever you want to call it to reflect. You suggest that people track this stuff and be able to reflect it. Are there any other prescriptions for someone who’s reading this, who wants to experiment, lean into solitude, that might help them figure out their sweet spot?
A few things, one would be, if you’re trying to see how you like experiencing solitude, it doesn’t have to be a three-hour trek in the forest. Like anything else, you can start small, even if it’s a few minutes here and there, or a walk around the block, or sitting alone with your thoughts on the couch for a few minutes. It’s not a race to see who can spend more time alone and feel okay by experimenting a little bit and starting at a smaller amount and comfortably moving forward as you are, having positive experiences that will allow you to find where your sweet spot is. That would be one piece of advice. Another general piece of advice is it should be okay to talk to other people about these needs and these experiences because there’s a lot of people out there for whom solitude only means a punishment. It only means something bad.
Even if you are living alone, you are still interacting with people, you’re making plans, you’re going out, you’re seeing your friends, maybe not so much now, but you will be again. If you want to stay home on a Friday night, because you need some me time, you don’t have to say you’re washing your hair. You don’t have to make up an excuse. You shouldn’t have to. It should be okay to say, “I’m taking a little time for myself tonight,” and that should be fine. That doesn’t mean that you don’t like the people who you’re supposed to see. It doesn’t mean that you’re not interested in a relationship with a person with whom you were supposed to spend time. Those types of needing some time for yourself should be okay and it should be okay to express that need.
It’s to prioritize it, own it, and not be embarrassed about not.
That’s a job that we can help with. Raising awareness and educating that this stuff is normalized and it is part of being human. Wanting to spend time with others as part of being human and being a social animal, being a solitary animal, sometimes is also part of being human. Both sides of those coins should be valued.
In my opinion, if someone takes anything away from this is the normalization of solitude, and that if you want lots and lots of it, there’s nothing wrong with you. If you don’t want much of it, there’s nothing wrong with you.
To add to that, I would say that making sure that there is also a balance. It is possible to spend too much time with others. It’s also possible to spend too much time alone. What is normal for any one person, as we’ve said is going to be quite different. There’s going to be a range there and maybe whichever one you feel you’re not getting enough of on both sides of those coins, it might ultimately be good for you to push yourself a bit to get a little bit more on both sides. We’ve talked about the importance of normalizing wanting to spend time alone. It doesn’t also discount the importance of having relationships and having interactions. We do benefit from those things. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not doesn’t always have to be one or the other. We should be striving to improve our quality of experiences in both contexts. That will make the largest contribution to our well-being.
Last thing, let’s talk about relationship status. Let’s talk about being single in solitude. I always talk about how singles need to have a team and the research bears this out. Singles, especially those who are living a remarkable life are more interconnected than their partnered peers. Bella said this phrase, she got it from someone else, “Married people have the one. Single people have the ones.” Because you’re single, it doesn’t mean you’re alone. You may have a rich group of colleagues and friends. You may be volunteering, traveling and connected to the world in many ways or less so along those lines. In your research or the work in general, is there a finding with regard to relationship status single versus non-single?
We haven’t reached the point yet where we’ve looked at that specific variable, whether or not you are single, married, or with a partner, etc., and looking at loneliness. From everything we know about single people, they’re also a heterogeneous group. Some people who are single are going to want to spend a lot of time with other people. You can be a single person who is extroverted and who loves spending time with other people but you happen to live by yourself. You can be a single person who loves and enjoys the high-quality solitary time.
Especially if your readers are more likely to be single, you’re going to see the same variability and the same individual differences in everybody, regardless of your marital status. Marital status doesn’t determine your personality and how much you enjoy the quality of your solitary experiences. Everything that we’ve talked about on all those different factors would apply to people who are married and to be single.
I’m going to add one hypothesis. If you are married, especially with children and you desire solitude, it may be harder to get.
That’s the stereotype. If you’re a parent alone with your kids being educated at home, you’re breaking up the wineglass at 2 PM to get yourself through the day. Part of the reason is that you don’t have any me time. There are huge amounts of stresses associated with that. That’s a population that I’m interested in. That’s where we’re going to find a peak of loneliness, in parents of young children who are dealing with all of the strains of those circumstances.
One of the things I always talk about is solos have optionality. They have opportunity and freedom. You can pull levers assuming you have a team which is, “Tonight, I want for myself. Tomorrow night, I want to go out,” or vice versa.
That is exactly what we know about experiences of solitude. They are much determined by the causal factors. If the cause is beyond your control, if you’re a child playing alone, because you’re isolated and you have no friends, or you’re being excluded or victimized, that, in many ways, is the worst possible experience of solitude. If you are moved to a new city, you’re gregarious, outgoing, and you don’t know anybody, and you’re stuck alone all the time, you’re going to feel lonely. You’re isolated because of your circumstances. What you described is the opposite. This is someone who has control over their social circumstances and can make internal decisions about what is going to be best for them. It’s under those circumstances that you’re most likely to have the most positive experiences of solitude. That’s what it boils down to. It’s having those choice points and control over your circumstances that give the best opportunity to experience solitude positively.
Robert, we’re going to end on that note. That’s a fantastic idea. You’re doing important work. I want to thank you for that. I’m learning about this stuff. I’ve intuited along the way, but I needed someone to provide the language, the research and the ideas here. You’ve done a great service to readers for them to feel more normal with regards to their desires, feelings, and their experiences with their alone time and non-alone time. I want to thank you for that.
Thank you. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed our chat.
- Solo Thoughts Episode Five: A New Narrative for Singles – Past episode
- Pickering Centre for Research in Human Development
- Quiet at School: An Educator’s Guide to Shy Children
- The Handbook of Solitude
- Flâneuring – Past episode
- Book – Flâneur: The Art of Wandering the Streets of Paris
- What Makes A Life Remarkable? – Past episode
- Episode – The Rise Of Single Living
About Robert Coplan
Robert Coplan is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University and the founding Director of the Pickering Centre for Research in Human Development. His research focuses on socio-emotional functioning and developmental psychopathology among children, adolescents, and young adults, with a particular focus on the development and implications of shyness and social withdrawal. Robert’s current research projects explore experiences of solitude across the lifespan and across cultures. He is the author of Quiet at School: An Educator’s Guide to Shy Children and is a co-editor and contributor to The Handbook of Solitude.
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