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Over the past few years, researchers have devoted significant study to the concept of solitude — its potential benefits, its role in our lives, even its basic definition.
So, here are a few takeaways from their recent work — with an eye toward how you can embrace alone time and make solitude a healthy practice in your life.
Where is the line between "together" and "alone"? This question isn't easy to answer, and to date, psychologists haven't settled on a single definition of solitude or the nature of its "active ingredient".
But many agree, at least when conducting their studies, that the key rests with whether participants feel alone. One's subjective perspective matters more than whether their objective circumstances would bear that out on closer inspection. In other words, if you feel alone, you probably are — at least for the purposes of your mental state.
When we feel lonely, it's because our desire for company exceeds our ability to find it. This process can work in reverse as well: If our desire for solitude exceeds our ability to find it, we can also struggle with feelings of discomfort.
"If we're not satisfying that need, there might also be a cost, just like there's a cost of being lonely if you don't satisfy your need to belong."
What constitutes the right amount of solitude varies person to person, Coplan says, but when you aren't getting enough time on your own, you may begin to feel more irritable, anxious or put out.
But that bolt from the blue need not arrive for solitude to show some psychological benefits. And you don't need to emulate a medieval hermit to get the kind of time and space needed to feel those effects either.
Paul Salmon , a psychology professor at the University of Louisville, recommends looking at your quest for solitude more along the lines of a high-intensity interval workout — as a variety of exercise that can be brief and scattered throughout the day but no less effective for it.
Funny as it may sound, pursuing your solitude may help develop your sense of community. By asking others for the time to yourself, and explaining why this is no reflection on their company, Salmon says you are bringing others into your trust, which they may appreciate.
"Explain that it's not like you're isolating yourself and setting yourself apart, but that what you're doing is something of personal value," he recommends. "By doing so, you're inviting other people to at least acknowledge and accept that and possibly even engage in it themselves."
And if even this does not help you obtain a separate space of your own, even for a little bit, remember that in many ways, solitude is what you make it. According to Salmon and his wife, Susan Matarese, a political scientist, also at Louisville, one doesn't need to be physically alone to experience solitude.
Just close your eyes, turn inward for a bit and pay attention to what's going on in your body and what thoughts are going through your brain.
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