Committing to a healthy solitude diet, one that balances connection with alone time, can feel like an indulgence. And yet, without some dose of solitude in our days, we fail to develop a rich interior life. Looking at the research, though, can help us understand what's really at stake when we spend our lives in a state of constant social grooming. It turns out that social connections are not the solution to that deep-dark boogeyman of loneliness inside us all, because the alternative to loneliness isn't company—the alternative to loneliness is solitude. So here are the facts that move the "solitude diet" notion beyond fuzzy platitudes:
1. Eurekas come from solitude.
The "blank" mind of the daydreamer is in fact a cover. When we daydream, the brain activates its "default mode network," an intense set of functions that works without our immediate awareness. The DMN is a master at making strange new connections and indiscriminately considering options that the conscious mind would cast aside. It's this level of brain activity that often leads to a surprise "eureka" in the shower. And when we study the daily habits of paradigm-shifting thinkers like Einstein and Newton, we find they always make room for solitary walks and time alone. Solitude is, in fact, a key part of the thinking process—in solitude we consider what we've learned from others on our own terms. When we pair collaborative learning with a little daydreaming we maximize our mind's potential.
2. Those who love solitude are never alone.
The English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott found that our ability to enjoy time alone is reliant on a deep-seated belief that we're always cared for. After studying the development of babies for years, he reported that a healthy sense of self is reached when the child experiences a state of "going on being" without the attention of a parent. Paradoxically, this state of calm detachment only becomes possible when the child knows that the parent could become available. Dad is just folding laundry in the next room, say, or busy making dinner. Later in life, those who are content to be alone manage to do so because they have faith that there's always someone who cares—just out of sight.
3. Learning to be alone supercharges your creativity.
The great psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (the originator of the concept of "flow" in work) studied teenagers and found that those who couldn't handle the occasional bout of solitude were far less likely to develop creative abilities. It's in their solitude that children develop habits like doodling and journaling—habits that lay the groundwork for lives of creative output.
4. Solitude makes you honest.
Groupthink constantly tweaks our opinions, subtly warping the ideas that we hold as "our own" so they better align with the thinking of the crowd. How insidious is this influence? Consider this pioneering study by psychologist Solomon Asch: A study of Harvard University students found they'd offer patently false answers to extremely simple questions just to bring themselves in line with a set of actors who were pretending to agree on the wrong answer. A full three-quarters of participants changed their answers in order to conform with the crowd.
5. Dropping social media is a vacation in the past.
Only 8 percent of U.S. adults used social media in 2005, but that number ballooned to 78 percent in 2016. And by 2020, it's estimated that 30 to 50 billion everyday objects will be "smart," making up a globe-size "Internet of Things." All this means you're living in the middle of a massive shift-point and your ability to enjoy life both online and off is a rare commodity in the course of human events. You're part of the only generation that gets to live in both worlds—Before and After the advent of the internet.
6. Ditching sidewalks for trails can heal.
A team of scientists tracked 11,000 adults between 2004 and 2010 to find out whether texting and emails could stave off depression. Answer: nope. It turns out that becoming the most connected people in history does little for our sense of well-being. Meanwhile, there's mounting evidence that a simple walk in the woods can do wonders. Leaving the urban crowd and spending some alone time on a trail lowers levels of brooding, boosts the immune system, and insulates us from stress.
7. Disconnection saves us from addictive behavior.
Psychologist Elizabeth Waterman, who specializes in online addictions, notes that "we're hard-wired to share for our own survival" and social media especially capitalizes on that primal instinct, giving us a jolt of dopamine whenever the phone pings. Waterman says it's social media apps that leave people most vulnerable to addiction (Instagram, Pinterest); by contrast, news or sports sites pose far smaller risks. A typical internet user now spends two hours on social media every day—that's a lot of productivity handed over to addictive tech. The future belongs to those who can control their social cravings and design their own days.