Monday, May 08, 2017

The Power of Solitude to Combat Depression

Image result for johnpiippo quiet
Central State University (prior to their current renovations)

An emerging body of research suggests that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. 

See Leon Nayfekh's article "The Power of Lonely" on the Boston Globe. Solitude is a good and needed thing, he says. Here are the bullets.

  • Even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of achieving focus and creative thinking.
  • Research suggests that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life. If we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. I know, after years of regularly taking solitary times with God, that it helps me be better with people.
  • Solitude (if done right) makes our bodies and minds work better.
  • One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone.
  • Solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. (I am certain this is true. Especially if solitude is done "in the right way." My compassion for others, even for my enemies, increases in extended solitary times with God.)
  • In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.
  • Nayfekh writes: "Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius."
  • Solitude is to be distinguished from "loneliness."
  • Nayfekh has an interesting review of "solitude research." U-Mass graduate student Christopher Long "started working on a project to precisely define solitude and isolate ways in which it could be experienced constructively. The project’s funding came from, of all places, the US Forest Service, an agency with a deep interest in figuring out once and for all what is meant by “solitude” and how the concept could be used to promote America’s wilderness preserves."
  • There is "an emergence of solitude studies." For example, Robert Coplan of Carleton University studies children who play alone. "Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually." 
  • Gilbert's study shows that solitude combats "social loafing," "which says that people tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on others to pick up their slack. (If two people are pulling a rope, for example, neither will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.)" All multitasking is not good for the brain or the soul.
  • Solitude fosters "metacognitive activity." "Metacognition" is the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts."  As Richard Arum shows us in his book Academically Adrift that today's multitasking university students are doing that less and less. (This is Daniel Kahneman's "slow thinking.")
  • Reed Larson of the U of Illinois, in his study of teens and solitude, has shown that meaningful times alone allows for a kind of introspection and freedom from self-consciousness that strengthens their sense of identity. I can personally see how this might happen in the fruit of years spent in intentional aloneness with God. Larson found "that kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression."
  • "John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book “Loneliness” with William Patrick summarized a career’s worth of research on all the negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others, said recently that as long as it’s not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life."
  • Psychologist Adam Waytz of Harvard says that "spending a certain amount of time alone... can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals."
  • Finally, "kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression."


Henri Nouwen has told us that there is a "ministry of presence" and a "ministry of absence." There is a time to be alone with God and a time to be with God and people. I've written about the need for Jesus-followers to regularly enter into solitary times with God here.



FYI - two important pieces on prayer and solitude are: The chapter on "Solitude" in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, and Henri Nouwen's chapter on solitude in The Way of the Heart.