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The benefits of spending time by yourself, according to an expert

Robert Coplan, a professor at Carleton University's Department of Psychology in Ottawa. (Submitted by Robert Coplan) Robert Coplan, a professor at Carleton University's Department of Psychology in Ottawa. (Submitted by Robert Coplan)
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In a virtually constantly connected world, the notion of solitude seems elusive, even daunting, and being alone is often thought of in a negative context.

But solitude is not the same as loneliness, and when people choose to spend time by themselves, it can actually be beneficial, according to Robert Coplan, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The key is to understand the difference between the two, Coplan told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

Solitude, he emphasizes, is the deliberate choice to spend time alone, a concept often misunderstood and conflated with loneliness.

“It is possible to feel lonely when you are not alone,” he said. “Adolescents will tell us they feel lonely sitting at the dinner table with their family.

“And, of course, it's also possible to be by yourself and not feel lonely.”

Loneliness, on the contrary, is the discrepancy between how much time someone wants to be with others versus the time they actually spend alone. This manifests as a negative feeling which can be harmful to people’s health, he said.

People who frequently feel lonely report poor mental health and lower levels of satisfaction, according to a survey by Statistics Canada.

The survey, titled “Canadian Social Survey – Well-being, Activities and Perception of Time,” reported close to half (49 per cent) of those who said that they always or often felt lonely indicated their mental health was either fair or poor. In comparison, a smaller share (seven per cent) of those who said they rarely or never feel lonely, indicated fair or poor mental health.

This data was collected between August and September of 2021, to provide the first direct measure of loneliness felt by Canadians more than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nobody's disputing that loneliness is bad, and unwanted time alone, unwanted solitude is bad,” said Coplan.

But when people choose to spend time alone, that’s when the benefits of solitude arise, he said.

Some of the benefits include reducing stress and feelings of anger and frustration, Coplan said.

HOW TO “SOLITUDE” THE RIGHT WAY

Coplan said there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to spending time alone as each person is different. It’s a matter of discovering one’s own “Goldilocks spot,” the optimal balance between alone time and engaging with others, he explained.

Coplan said he and his colleagues’ research highlights how even spending as little as 15 minutes a day alone can evoke a calming effect on emotions, lasting even a week after the solitary activity.

While practicing solitude, it’s important to do engaging activities, he said. So, instead of browsing social media or scrolling through messages on your phone – which Coplan argues doesn’t count as solitude – he recommends meditating, going for a walk, reading a book, listening to music or practicing a craft or hobby.

Coplan said solitude should be personalized to meet each individual’s needs.

“We can be our authentic, true selves (during this time). We can do what we want to do. There's no constraints. There's a liberation to that kind of experience,” he added.

HOW TO CHANGE THE NARRATIVE OF SOLITUDE IN SCHOOLS?

Coplan also said there are fewer opportunities for unstructured solitary play time for children in schools.

“Kids are losing their ability to play by themselves… And when they are alone, more often than not, they're on a screen,” he said.

Coplan adds forced alone time is often used as a disciplinary action.

“Parents give you timeout if you’re doing something wrong. So, that’s the negative side of solitude,” he said.

This, he argues, may inadvertently hinder the development of crucial solitary skills.

“Just like everybody needs to develop their social skills, and their capacity to be with others, we also need to develop solitary skills and our capacity for solitude,” he said.

Ultimately, Coplan’s three-decade-long research urges a reconsideration of solitude, positioning it not as a solitary confinement, but as a realm for self-discovery, creativity, and rejuvenation.  

Coplan is presenting his research at a free hybrid event on Sep. 13 at noon.

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