The Psychology of Solitude: 5 Reasons Why Getting Away is Good for the Mind

The Psychology of Solitude

In 1923, visionary Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung began construction on what would become known as his “Tower”; a quasi-medieval retreat located just a stone’s throw from Lake Zurich. Each year, Jung reportedly spent months at Bollingen Tower writing, reflecting and engaging in “imaginary research” where he conducted experiments in his mind using his heightened creative faculties. In this fortress, Jung penned parts of his illuminating Red Book and many others. Far from being a luxurious vacation, Jung viewed his time away as a source of vitality and strength, saying, “Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living.”

Nearly a century later, modern research is validating what many of the greatest thinkers of all time have long known: solitude is good for the mind. It is associated with benefits across diverse disciplines. Today we’ll explore the five reasons why finding your own “Jungian Retreat is not only good for you, but necessary.

#1: Avoid Exhaustion – Give Your Mind a Break

One of the age-old explorations of psychology has been the study of personality. Many metrics exist, from Meyers-Briggs which is loosely based on Jung’s archetypes to the Enneagram which claims to have descended from much older, mysterious sources. The most scientifically validated framework to date is the Big 5, which looks at traits that have been associated with genetic markers, nerve sensitivity and other measurable traits. A person’s tendency towards extroversion or introversion, for example, can be observed shortly after birth by exposing children to loud noises and observing if they turn towards (future extroverts) or away (future introverts) from the sound. By tracking physiological responses to external stress, researchers have shown that introverts, who make up an estimated 40% of the world’s population, are more sensitive to stimuli, meaning they become exhausted more quickly and need to retreat more often.

This tracks with psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron’s research on the Highly-Sensitive Person (HSP). Aron estimates that HSPs make up about 20% of the population and are among those most likely reach sensory exhaustion first because their experiences are so much more acute. Even the most extroverted person will eventually experience sensory overload and need to retreat, which tells us solitude is good for everyone, but necessary for introverts and highly-sensitive people to function.

#2: Be Present – Connect by Disconnecting

A growing body of evidence suggests that, if one desires to offer their best to the world, one must occasionally retreat from it. At Microsoft, there is a division that studies the way people work. It was at Microsoft, in 1998, that Linda Stone famously coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the state many find themselves. Stone’s research shows that people who never disconnect lose the ability to fully engage. Common in mediation practices is the philosophy that it is impossible to be present to the world if one is always immersed in the world. Our brains are wired for efficiency; they filter out repetitive stimuli. Effectively, this means that anything we are exposed to constantly we begin to ignore. If you have ever realized you were taking something for granted, you have fallen prey to this type ruthless neurological efficiency. Solitude helps to wipe the slate clean and reset our reticular-activating system (RAS), the part of the brain that sifting through input to determine its relevance and usefulness. This demonstrates that if you want to be present and live your life fully, you need to find reprieve now and then to clear your mind.

#3: Be Smarter – Avoid Being “Always On”

In one study conducted by the University of London, people who were constantly around others and being subjected to external stimuli such as texts, phone calls and email notifications showed an eventual decrease in cognitive function. Over time, the IQ scores decrease by an average of 10 points (5 points for women and 15 points for men). Their reaction times were the same as a person who had missed an entire night’s sleep, or, more entertaining, those of a person who had smoked 3 joints of marijuana.

A recent article revealed that a standard edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person in the 1700s would have been exposed to in their entire life. Two hundred years later, the hardware of the mind is much the same, but the input is exponentially more. Research suggests that the total cumulative knowledge of the world doubles every two years. In order to function, we need to learn to stop the ride and get off from time to time. Intentional periods of solitude and down time helps the mind operate at its best. Our takeaway? Without stints of quiet, we become mentally worn out, literally acting as though we were less intelligent versions of ourselves.

#4: Be Productive – Accomplish More in Less Time

One of the reasons Jung was able to produce such a mountain of content was his habitual solitude. For ages, prolific creators have extolled the value of deep, long, uninterrupted bouts of work. Cal Newport studies this extensively in his book Deep Work, where he notes multiple times that such work is impossible when one is constantly around other people and thus being interrupted. Daniel Goleman, whose work on emotional intelligence is legend, also writes extensively on focus. People’s inability to sustain long periods of directed attention concerns him and many others. One of the remedies? Learn to be comfortable being alone.

#5: Know Thyself – Raise Your Emotional Intelligence

Along the same vein, the ability to be comfortable alone with oneself is directly related to a person’s emotional intelligence, a term coined to articulate the ability to know and manage oneself and understand and manage relationships with others. The people who score highest overall are also those who are most comfortable being alone. Considered by many to be even more important than intellectual prowess (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ) has been shown to correlate with professional success, relational fulfillment and even salary. Not half bad! One of the best things you can do to increase your EQ? Regularly take time for yourself to disconnect, reflect and introspect.

Clearly Jung and others were onto something in their staunch devotion to solitude. He found, as many others had before and have since, that fullness of life and wholeness of mind are found through the practice of occasional time away from others. Solitude is not just a nicety, it’s essential for a healthy mind that operations at optimal capacity.

The specifics will vary from person to person, but the principle is timeless: everyone can benefit from some time away. Whether its time alone each morning, guided meditations on weekends or an occasional Thoreau-like retreat to the wilderness, experiment and discover what works best for you.

Recommended Book on Solitude: Solitude: A Return to the Self https://amzn.to/2PB6hD8

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