How do you spend your free time? Do you read a book or watch tv? Maybe you listen to music? Or do you spend your free time with people?

We only have one life and choosing how to spend the time we have left is fundamental. There are those who prefer spending time with friends, those who prefer spending time with family, and those who prefer spending time alone. Do you think one of these approaches is better than the other ones? Short answer: no. But let me explain.

Solitude

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, solitude is defined as “the state of being or living alone; loneliness”. However, it’s important to make a distinction between solitude and loneliness. In fact, the last is generally seen as a negative emotional state that people tend to avoid. On the other hand, research has shown that solitude isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being alone means you can choose the activities you want to do based on your current emotional and physical state. However, people of different ages approach solitude in different ways.

Age matters

Winnicott explains that the preference for solitude may occur from a very young age. In fact, being close to your mother and having her by your side while you play alone can enhance your ability to benefit from spending time alone when you’re older. If we learn how to be alone when we’re young, we’ll never be actually alone in the future: in fact, although we might be physically alone — meaning that we won’t have people around us — we’d still feel the presence of our loved one (the mother in this case) beside us.
As we’ve said before, age is a key component when examining whether you’re comfortable being alone or not. On average, the time we spend alone increases with our age. However, as we age, we’re also better equipped to deal with solitude. For example, adolescents experience solitude better than preadolescents because they’re able to find more constructive ways of spending their time alone, as well as regarding this time as a way to decompress from stressful situations that may occur in their social time.
When we’re adults, instead, the time we spend alone is closely linked to external factors, such as if we’re married or have children.
As we grow old, we tend to spend a lot of time alone because we know our time on this planet is coming to an end. Therefore, we may decide to cut out all the meaningless friendships or relationships we have. Therefore, apart from the care assistant that they need on a daily basis, they might choose to cut ties with everyone else.

The benefits of spending time alone

As we’ve said in the first part of the article, spending time alone may be beneficial for your health.
When we’re alone, we’re free to do whatever we want. As you may imagine, our creativity works best when we have no boundaries. Being creative means being able to link new ideas together, and solitude can help with the process of finding new alternative identities and realities, possibly leading to a transformation of ourselves. There are a number of benefits that spark from creativity, both in the physical and the mental sphere.
Moreover, traditions and myths have highlighted the beneficial aspect of spending time alone. Taoists, for example, value solitude because it’s a way to recharge from the pressure of society by finding a connection with nature. It’s not a case that nature is positively linked with solitude. In fact, a study, conducted on undergraduate students, highlighted that the best way to benefit from solitude is going to a place where you can be as close to nature as possible — such as the beach, the mountains, or the woods.
Lastly, the benefits of being alone go as far as reducing depressive symptoms and other mental health disorders. In fact, being alone allows you to focus on your thoughts and emotions. Solitude may also benefit self-care — the ability to care for ourselves both psychologically and physically — leading us to live a better and more meaningful life.

The dangers of solitude

As all things, solitude has both positive and negative consequences. Since the necessity to be alone may spark from social anxiety or other mental conditions that prevent us from being able to positively connect with people, spending time alone may worsen the feelings that drove us to choose solitude in the first place. This can lead to extreme outcomes, like substance abuse, severe depression, or anxiety. If we decide to spend most of our time alone, not only can we start to feel disconnected from others, but we could also experience more negative moods when we’re around people.
When we feel the need to be alone or as far away from people as possible, we may also turn to the Internet. Excessive Internet use has been shown to increase depression levels. However, since the Internet is perceived as a safer way to experience a sort of social interaction, depression is also one of the reasons why people prefer online social interaction in the first place. As you can see, it’s a vicious circle.

Social interaction

You can benefit from social interaction too, regardless of the age. A study, conducted on young people, highlighted that a social interaction as short as ten minutes improves cognitive performance more than spending the same amount of time in a so-called intellectual activity. Moreover, a study, conducted on both younger and older people, highlighted that the more time people spend together with other people, the more their cognitive performance improves.
But the benefits of social interaction aren’t limited to the cognitive sphere. An Italian study, conducted on older people alone, investigated the effects of volunteering in a public park for a year. The participants, who decided to take part in the project because they wanted to socialize and benefit from being in nature, found that, after a year, their physical health had improved thanks to walking around a lot. This led them to feel stronger, prouder, and more active than before.

As we’ve seen, spending time alone can have both positive and negative outcomes on our health. However, socializing too can improve your health.
Creating and maintaining strong and valid relationships helps us live happier and longer but taking the time to be alone and recharge is also important. As all things, balance is key.