In our studies, we define self-reflection as the act of attending to one’s thoughts and feelings. In two experiments, we found that those who were in complete solitude, without a secondary activity, self-reflected more than those who read alone. Those who were alone, browsing on social media, were the least reflective. In fact, if you are someone who tends to be self-reflective, our research showed that time alone is most enjoyable if you allow yourself to sit in solitude rather than reading or using your phone.
Of course, this is not a new insight. It has been widely suggested in popular books and philosophical texts that time spent alone is good for self-reflection. Yet, not all self-reflection during the time spent alone is qualitatively the same: it can be insightful or ruminative. In our current experiments, when Weinstein and I ask participants to describe a time when they were alone and felt inauthentic or ‘not true’ to themselves, this is characterized by the ruminative variety of self-reflection, filled with negative thoughts and regrets from which they couldn’t get away.
When self-reflection turns sour and rumination takes over, mindful practices might be an effective strategy for some people to calm their repetitive negative thoughts. However, this suggestion should be taken with caution as mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone and might be best practiced in moderation. So, alternatively, it might not be a bad idea to break the solitude and reach out to a trusted friend, even if by a phone call or message. If you have a choice, it’s never advisable to remain in solitude when it’s no longer fruitful, particularly if you feel that rumination and worry are causing you distress.
Time alone is an opportunity for us to hit the reset button, to calm our high-arousal emotions. During the time we spend alone, we also have the option to seek complete solitude, to drop our daily activities, and find a space to attend to our thoughts and emotions.
Yet, if daily solitude is a lost art, as Harris suggests, how do we find the motivation to harvest it?
The answer depends on the individual but, surprisingly, not so much on whether you are an introvert or an extravert. Instead, our research shows that a healthy motivation for spending time alone is linked to a personality characteristic called ‘dispositional autonomy’, which describes people’s capacity to regulate their daily experiences at will. Essentially, this means that embracing solitude is more about having the ability to self-regulate your emotions than about how introverted you happen to be.
People with an autonomous personality feel that they have chosen to do what they’re doing, instead of seeing themselves as pawns at the mercy of the external environment. Having this approach to life is also about taking interest in every bit of your experience, trying out new experiences, and exploring how you feel about them. Indeed, when we created a manipulation in the lab where some people were forced into experiencing solitude (thus reducing their sense of autonomy) and others were invited to take interest in it and try it out (fostering their autonomy), those who were forced into solitude saw less value in experiencing it and, in turn, derived less enjoyment from it.
It is important to note that all the volunteers tested in these studies were university students in the United States. Thus, these findings from 2017-19 tell us about the daily experiences with the solitude of young adults in societies that offer easy access to many entertainment options and flexible working hours. In a culture fuelled by fast-paced lifestyles and convenient technologies, we are easily pulled by our devices and our obsession with productivity.
When we are alone, we find ourselves working, and when we have a free moment, we want to catch up with what other people are doing by picking up our phones. This can be true even when people are in lockdown and unable to socialize in person. Such a mindset, in which we actively seek to avoid solitude, only increases the chance that we’ll find the experience unpleasant when it arises.
Conversely, by seizing the opportunity for relaxation and reflection afforded by moments (or even stretches) of solitude in our busy lives, we can reap the benefits. Time, when we are unexpectedly alone, can be difficult but, at least for some of us, it can also be a blessing in disguise.