Please Go Away So I Can Think: The Positive Effects of Solitude

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Humans are social, relational animals. We need each other. But do we perform tasks better when we are alone? Does thinking about how other people perform them raise our anxiety levels and take our energy away? And is it possible to act just as effectively as if we were alone, even with others around?

Humans are social animals, and the link between the strength of our connections with others and our health and wellbeing seems well established. Social isolation clearly causes a lot of misery, whether caused by social anxiety or by other factors, which prevent us from getting out and maintaining connections.

But there’s a third option, which often seems overlooked, in our “extrovert” society, in which we tend to remain almost permanently connected to others via social media. Solitude can be a vitally precious resource, a source of inspiration, joy, and relaxation.

Introverts know this in their gut (although they may be persuaded that they should be different from how they are, and suffer from that pressure, or from their own attempts to fit in), but freely chosen solitude is valuable for everybody.

A fascinating piece of research in progress by Barum and Gilbert (mentioned recently in an article on the benefits of solitude in The Boston Globe) has thrown up some preliminary conclusions that certainly fit with my own experience. It seems that people’s memories may work better when they are alone. This is not a question of distractions stopping us from concentrating. Participants in the study were asked to memorise elements on a computer screen, back to back with other participants, who were doing an identical task. However, when the participants were told that they were doing different tasks from each other, they performed better — they remembered more of the items when asked a few days later. When participants believed that they were the only ones doing a particular task, they formed longer lasting memories of what they had done.

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The first of two possible explanations suggested by Barum is “social loafing” — the phenomenon by which we put less effort into a task when we (mistakenly) believe that others will make up for our laziness. Personally, I can measure this easily by noting how much housework I do when alone (almost adequate) as compared to how much I do when my husband is home (negligible!).

The second possibility is that when we are doing something with others we have less energy available for the task in hand, simply because we are expending quite a lot of energy and attention on wondering what they are thinking as they approach the task. This leads into another question — that of being influenced by what we think other people may be thinking, or how they may be doing the task. It may well be hard to concentrate on how we perceive the task in hand when we are either seduced by the way someone we admire may be approaching it, or fending off the influence of others, feeling anxious as a result, etc.

But is energy really a finite resource which can be allocated in varying amounts, and does ‘giving’ some to others leave ‘less’ for myself? It certainly feels like that sometimes, when there are multiple demands on our time. It can seem that other people are taking our energy in measurable chunks. On the other hand, this relative truth can obscure another level, on which it is possible to control the quality of our attention. It’s possible to notice the natural ‘drag’ on our energy caused by the sense that someone else will do it for us, or that others are expecting something from us, or that we would like to please them, and to make the decision to focus directly on what it is we have to do. This decision would be obvious if we were alone. The ‘natural drag’ on our energy is, after all, about our own thoughts on what is happening, rather than other people physically removing energy from us. So it is quite possible, using awareness of how we tend to scatter our energy, to harness it and put it into the task in hand.

If it is true that we are more responsible and effective when we believe that we are the only ones responsible for a task, and when we put our minds to it without wondering what others may think, then it seems that we can think and act creatively in spontaneous ways, and we do not have to be manipulated by outside rewards. This does not mean of course that we are not primarily relational beings — while we are concentrating on something ‘alone’ we are still beings made up of all our different relationships, not isolated essences. But we do not need to explicitly draw our attention to others in order to function well; in fact, we may be better off ignoring them!

What do you think?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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