What constitutes healthy solitude vs. isolation? Here’s a handy 4-point checklist that will help you tell the difference in your own life.
Some people will go to considerable lengths to avoid true solitude.
Consider the college-student participants in one of the latter of a series of 11 studies whose results were cumulatively published in the journal Science (in the July 4, 2014, article “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind”).
The participants’ task in Study 10 was to simply sit in a room, alone, for 15 minutes—without their cellphone, a book, etc.—and just let their mind wander.
The researchers, led by psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, had learned from previous studies in the series that participants often struggled with such an assignment.
Maybe, Wilson and his colleagues reasoned, the participants needed a distraction.
So the researchers provided one: a button the participants could push, if they felt like it, to receive a small electric shock from a 9-volt battery.
Wilson et al. let the participants see what the shock felt like beforehand (thus taking away the novelty aspect). They also gave the students a hypothetical $5 and asked them how much they’d pay to avoid the shock; most offered a dollar or two.
But when the experiment finally took place, Wilson et al. were, well, shocked by the results:
Two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women opted for a shock at least once.
For some people, it seems, any stimulation is better than nothing at all.
When Solitude Is Taken Too Far
On the other side of the solitude spectrum you’ll find people like the so-called hikikomori in Japan (and increasingly, researchers suspect, elsewhere as well), who take solitude way past a healthy level.
According to Japan’s Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, a hikikomori is someone who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to work or school, and who rarely interacts with people outside their own immediate family.
A nationwide study released by Japan’s Cabinet Office in March 2019 estimated that around 613,000 Japanese citizens between the ages of 40 and 64 are hikikomori.
That figure surpassed the 541,000 number (among people ages 15 to 39) that the Cabinet Office had estimated in a 2015 survey.
Healthy Solitude vs. Isolation—The 4 “Ifs”
If you’re like most people, you fall somewhere between these two extremes where your pursuit of solitude is concerned.
But if you’re an introvert in particular, you likely do sometimes ask yourself (or perhaps face the question from others in your life):
What separates healthy solitude from unhealthy isolation? Where does beneficial bleed into detrimental?
Think, he says, in terms of four “ifs.”
Solitude “can be productive,” he writes:
1) If you’re spending time alone voluntarily.
Alone time you choose is fundamentally different from alone time that is somehow forced upon you, Rubin suggests.
Several studies since 2014 have borne this idea out—notably, a 2018 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study, which found that participants who had pursued solitude, for intrinsic reasons, got more out of it than participants who were told they had to spend time by themselves.
2) If you can join a social group when you want to.
There’s a distinction to be made, Rubin suggests, between having a social group(s) in your life and opting to spend time away from it vs. having no social group(s) at all, and thus practically defaulting to isolation.
If you’re taking some time alone knowing full well you can get together with people whenever you’re ready, you’re in good shape.
If the opposite is true, you may have a problem on your hands, if not now then eventually.
3) If you can regulate your emotions—particularly social fears and anger—effectively.
Does solitude generally help you feel better, or worse?
Does it help you process your thoughts and feelings effectively, or does it leave you ruminating endlessly about what’s wrong in your life, personally and/or socially?
Healthy solitude gives you a psychological and emotional boost.
Unhealthy isolation, not so much.
4) If you’re able “to initiate and maintain positive, supportive relationships with others.”
Being alone because you can’t, or don’t try to, build close relationships with other people is different than taking some time alone—again, by choice (see No. 1)—to think or to focus or to recharge, or all three.
Forgoing relationships is not the same as temporarily stealing away to sit with your thoughts and feelings in relative silence.
Solitude vs. Isolation—in a Nutshell
The bottom line on solitude vs. isolation, then—as writer Brent Crane summarizes it in his 2017 Atlantic article “The Virtues of Isolation“—is this:
“The difference between solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering is the quality of self-reflection that one can generate while in it, and the ability to come back to social groups when one wants to.”