Skip to main content

How Isolation Can Actually Be a Good Thing

The majority of the United States is under some form of “shelter-in-place” or “safer at home” order right now. For some, that means holing up with a significant other, while others are with an entire family, including school-age kids. A large portion of the population, however, is home alone with nothing but their own thoughts, the occasional conversation with a food delivery driver, and a bottomless pit of Netflix. Were this any other year — a year where the world was not in the clutches of a global pandemic — that trio of circumstances might sound like a vacation. However, as the days have turned into weeks and then to months, the novelty no doubt wears thin.

We are hardwired to need at least some human interaction. Society also continually reminds us of how awful being alone feels or should feel. Prisoners are threatened with solitary confinement as the ultimate form of punishment. Most of us can’t surrender our phones for longer than 20 minutes without abandonment creeping in from the lack of social media feedback. On an existential scale, the fear of “dying alone” looms large over some of us as a fate worse than death. There is some truth to the awfulness of these things. Socializing with family, friends, and even strangers is a necessary component of our emotional well-being. However, it needn’t be a crutch or the only way that we can feel whole.

isolation relaxation window
Skynesher/Getty Images

For those feeling isolated right now, there is — or at least can be — a silver lining to being alone. It’s a matter of shifting one’s perspective. For millennia, philosophers, creative types, and proud introverts have sought escape to uncover the virtues of being utterly, blissfully alone. For some, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. If it helps to frame your situation, remember that it’s not forever (we will get through this pandemic and go outside again), and family and friends are usually just a Zoom call away.

Coping with or, more importantly, enjoying time alone may require actively developing the capacity to be alone in the first place. It can be viewed as a skill or a muscle that needs flexing. Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist and researcher of solitude, told The Atlantic, “It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does, it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.” Bowker confirms that “a person who can find a rich self-experience in a solitary state is far less likely to feel lonely when alone.”

Let’s look at some of the potential benefits of being alone, whether for a day or six weeks.

Isolation Can Foster Creativity

For most people, just being alone is enough to stimulate their creative process. Absent other voices, constant chatter, and the mental “overhead” of socializing in public, our brains are free to wander. There’s a reason “shower thoughts” are a thing. Just being alone for 10-15 minutes while your subconscious focuses on menial tasks like rinsing your hair can foster creativity. In the face of weeks of isolation, embrace that lack of socializing head-on. Use it to tackle the creative things you never seem to have time for: write a novel, learn a new language, teach yourself to cook, or take an overnight solo camping trip. Examine all the things you promised yourself you’d do someday. Pick one, and do it.

isolation cooking show
10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Being Alone Can Boost Productivity

This seems like the most obvious benefit of being alone. Without the distraction of others, you have all the time in the world to do the things you want or need to do. This, of course, requires focus. Without a significant other or friend to hold you accountable, it’s easy to spend your free time alone on pointless exercises (see also the wild popularity of Tiger King).

You Become the Priority

With friends and loved ones around, most of us tend to shift our priorities to what others need. If your living situation provides precious little alone time, your needs and desires might disappear into the background. Being alone allows time to focus on yourself, to prioritize you. It also frees you from worrying about what other people think about what you’re doing.

isolation yoga living room relax
PeopleImages/Getty Images

Isolation Improves Concentration

In groups, humans can fall victim to a social phenomenon called “social loafing.” In the company of other people, we tend to focus less and spend minimal effort on memorizing information. This is because we anticipate that others in the group will make decisions, remember details, or keep tabs on the conversation to help “fill in the gaps.” In isolation, we have no one to fall back on but ourselves, which can ultimately improve memory and concentration.

For a comprehensive guide to embracing your alone time, check out our tips for staying physically and mentally well in isolation.

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
The Best Fiction Books About Pandemics
Man reading a book and drinking coffee

If misery loves company, those of us stuck at home during the COVID-19 lockdown will love these compelling works of fiction about pandemics. (Not that being stuck at home at all equates to the misery felt by people actually suffering from sickness or from those spread thin on the front lines fighting it, but I categorically reject the fallacy of relative privation, so you feel however you need to feel in these times and others.)

While the pandemic currently plaguing the world is new and strange in many ways, it bears many of the hallmarks of all past (and surely future) strife; be it war, famine, plague, or other times of struggle, compelling stories emerge. We read of doctors, nurses, drivers, and others who refuse to be cowed by the threat they face, knowing their work keeps others safe and indeed alive. We watch videos of communities coming together, even as, this time, that means drawing apart. And of course, we hear stories of suffering, pain, and death.

Read more
The Best Artists for Listening to Music in Isolation
listening music isolation headphones

Music remains one of the best medicines on the planet. It’s a universal language that’s ever-relatable, inspires escape, and even allows us to grieve.
Right now, there’s a lot to process. I can’t imagine doing it without the incredible support good music provides. Whether you’re looking to lower your blood pressure, cry a river in the bathtub, challenge your mind, or simply dance the night away, we’ve got some fine suggestions for coping with what’s unfolding.
Tough times are much less so with the right tunes.

There’s a lot of anxiety in the air and it’s vital that we both relax and sleep. Fortunately, there’s music that inspires calm waters. For wafting, fluid, mist-like guitar work that’ll send you right off to bed, check out Cigarettes After Sex. The band’s whispered atmospheric rock is the lullaby we all need right now.
Katilyn Aurelia Smith is another act up to the task. The Washington State-born composer specializes in ambient synth music that’s ideal for a long exhale. In fact, her latest recording, Tides, was crafted specifically for meditation and yoga, and ebbs and flows nicely, with a rhythmic backbone that’ll place you into a peaceful trance. Moses Sumney is also worth a listen. His sound is hard to pin down but quite therapeutic, falling somewhere between neo-folk and futuristic soul. He’s already received some big endorsements from the music world, like James Blake.
Cigarettes After Sex

Read more
A Practical Guide to Writing While Quarantined
guide to writing in quarantine 2

As a writer, I have felt a tremendous amount of pressure to get a lot of work done during this quarantine. What does a writer crave more than long stretches of alone time to sit and think and plan? Not much. So, I’ve sat in front of my computer on many a quarantined night trying to do just that and have come up short. Maybe you’re in a similar boat or perhaps your writer’s block has taken on a different form. Regardless, I decided to drum up a guide to help us both.

Below, I’ve outlined some tips and tricks I’ve been using to get writing in quarantine. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and what works for me may not work for you. But, it should give you a few tools to whip out the next time you’re feeling stuck.
Consider Your Writing Wish List
Before opening a fresh Google Doc or getting started on a character profile, think about your writing wish list. What stories/forms/ideas have you wanted to explore, but never felt like you had the time to? What is it that you want to say? How do you want to say it? I recommend blocking off an afternoon to free-form brainstorm for a while. You can write your way through this exercise, draw pictures, make maps, do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re giving yourself the space to sift through your thoughts before jumping into the writing process. More than anything, remember that you’re writing for yourself first, so only dive into projects that truly excite you.
Be Realistic
And while you’re brainstorming, make sure to keep it at least somewhat realistic. Instead of saying you’re going to write the next Great American Novel during the pandemic, maybe you say you’re going to write a stellar short story that speaks to your lived experience. Or maybe you challenge yourself to explore a different traditional form of poetry each week. The key is to produce things to completion so you can get that little creative kick without getting discouraged by your inability to produce the next Moby Dick. 
Set Goals

Read more