If solitude were a food—say creamy mashed potatoes with rosemary and shaved parmesan cheese—I’d be the person scraping everyone’s leftovers off their plate. I can’t get enough of it. To me, spending time alone is every bit as sustaining as air, water or dark chocolate. But psychologists might have a few words of caution for me: spending too much time alone can have weighty consequences.
By its very nature, solitude temporarily severs our social ties, which can have harmful effects if you aren’t careful to reconnect. “Friendship is a lot like food,” Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps and Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me? wrote in Psychology Today. “We need it to survive. What is more, we seem to have a basic drive for it…a fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships.”
Marano goes on to say that there is evidence to support the notion that when our need for social relationships is not met—when solitude morphs into loneliness—we fall apart mentally and even physically. “There are effects of loneliness on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”
Psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago tracks the effects of loneliness, and his studies reveal some surprising ways it can compromise health:
- Spending too much time alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
- Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
- The social interactions of lonely people are not as positive as those of other people, hence their relationships do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
- Loneliness raises levels of stress hormones and blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
- Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that sleep is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. Lonely people wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the non-lonely.
The upshot is that while alone time has many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits when enjoyed in moderation, spending too much time alone can damage the mind and body. We function best when there’s a balance, when we spend healthy time alone, and at the same time nurture our close relationships.
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