Being Alone: The Pros and Cons of Time Alone

Some people naturally prefer time alone and that can be fine. Roughly 50% of the population can be categorized as introverts, meaning they get the most value in life out of time spent on their own.  Being alone can offer a rich psychological experience, but too much isolation can have a negative impact on both one’s physical and mental health.

Let’s explore the pros and cons of being alone.

Pros of Being Alone

Being Alone Allows Our Brains to Recharge

Our brains need balance. While social interactions are crucial to certain areas of brain activity, time alone is necessary for our brains to unwind and recharge. Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter explains, “Constantly being ‘on’ doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself. Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It’s an opportunity to revitalize your mind and body at the same time.”

Being Alone Increases Productivity

Let’s face it, people can be pretty distracting. “When you remove as many distractions and interruptions as you can from your day,” says Dr. Carter, “You are better able to concentrate, which will help you get more work done in a shorter amount of time.” Small interruptions from coworkers or family members can disrupt our trains of thought and make it difficult to get back into a project. Even the ping of a text message or an email notification can throw off our concentration and reduce productivity.

Being Alone Boosts Creativity

Creativity tends to flourish in solitude.  Studies are now showing that people are actually more likely to come up with their best ideas on their own, rather than during group brainstorming sessions. Human beings in general, and creativity in particular, are sensitive to criticism from others, which is one reason why so many of us are able to think more freely and express ourselves more clearly when we are alone. Additionally, the lack of interruption from others allows us to reflect and think differently, leading to more creative “meta-cognitions.”

Being Alone Can Actually Strengthen Relationships with Others

There are several reasons why spending some time alone can actually improve our relationships. For starters, differentiation (being a separate, autonomous individual) and linkage (being emotionally and physically close) are essential ingredients for a healthy relationship. Maintaining a certain level of independence helps keep the spark alive in a relationship. Furthermore, time alone allows us to appreciate our time with others more, rather than taking it for granted or feeling overwhelmed by it. Alone time can also help us understand others better. Introverts tend to have high levels of both empathy and self-awareness, two qualities that contribute to healthy relationships with others. Lastly, according to Dr. Carter, “By spending time with yourself and gaining a better understanding of who you are and what you desire in life, you’re more likely to make better choices about who you want to be around.”

Cons of Being Alone

Being Alone Makes Us Vulnerable to Our Inner Critics

Being alone with our thoughts isn’t always a good thing. Isolation can be the perfect breeding ground for negative, self-critical thoughts. We all have an inner critic, a nasty coach that lives inside our heads and seeks any opportunity to criticize us. These “critical inner voices” tend to multiply when we are left alone with our thoughts. The “critical inner voices” tend to be at their worst when we are not only alone, but are also feeling lonely.  At these times, the inner critic tells us that something is wrong with us and we don’t belong around other people. In this sense, we are our own worst enemy.

Being Alone Can Lead to Painful Loneliness

It is important to distinguish between time spent happily alone and time spent feeling lonely. Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has made a career out of studying loneliness, defines loneliness as “perceived social isolation, or the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships.” In this sense, loneliness is not defined by the amount of time we spend alone, but rather by how we feel about the time we spend alone. Feeling lonely can trigger feelings of being unloved or unlikeable, which can lead us to turn on ourselves. Feeling lonely is actually painful on a physical level, as well as emotional level. Cacioppo explains, “The absence of social connection triggers the same, primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain.”

Being Alone/Lonely Can Lead to Depression

Time spent alone and feeling lonely can lead to depression. In fact, studies now show that a lonely brain is structurally and biochemically different. When someone is lonely, their neural responses to positive images and events get suppressed, so the world is perceived through a negative filter. We are more likely  to believe that things are hopeless when we are lonely. This makes it more difficult to summon up the energy and bravery to find happiness and change.

Being Alone Can Be Bad for Our Health

Too much time alone is bad for our physical health. Studies have found that social isolation and loneliness can increase the likelihood of mortality by up to 30%. Researchers claim, “Being socially connected is not only influential for psychological and emotional well-being but it also has a significant and positive influence on physical well-being and overall longevity.” It is important to maintain strong social connections, even if you prefer to spend a majority of your time alone.

So What’s the Verdict?

While human beings need time alone to allow their brains to rest and rejuvenate, too much time alone or a lack of social connections can be harmful to our mental and physical health. It is important to distinguish between healthy time alone, where we are being productive, creative and introspective, versus negative time alone, where we are being self-critical or feeling lonely.

If you find yourself constantly around others and feeling depleted, make sure to schedule some healthy alone time. If you find yourself predominantly alone or are feeling lonely, make sure to invest more time seeking meaningful social connections. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, it is important to find the right balance for you.

If you are having a hard time combating feelings of loneliness, please read this post on What to Do When You’re Feeling Alone.

To learn more about where loneliness comes from and how you can combat it, watch our Webinar on A Way Out of Loneliness

 If you are feeling isolated and may be experiencing symptoms of depression, here are some helpful resources:

National Institute of Mental Health – Depression
Depression.com
WebMD – Depression
Helpguide.org – Depression
Depression-Screening.org

 GET HELP: IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN CRISIS OR IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE HELP, CALL 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This is a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.

International readers can click here for a list of helplines and crisis centers around the world.

About the Author

Lena Firestone Lena Firestone is a writer and new media specialist. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. She currently works at PsychAlive.org and leads private writing workshops in Santa Barbara, CA.

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