I read a great Jane Porter piece this week about the importance of solitude that I suspect will have a big impact on the way I talk to my clients about their health. You should read the entire article published in Fast Company online right here.
Before diving into the relevancy of Porter’s argument, a quick reminder about the positive health effect of strong social ties. Researcher, writer, and speaker Kelly McGonigal argues persuasively that we can dramatically alter the negative effects of stress in our lives by simply thinking about it differently. Beyond just thinking about stress differently, however, McGonigal sites research which states that strong social ties can act as a sort of steroid for our resilience.
“…when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”
This is profound. And when I first heard this, I immediately began thinking differently about how to make my personal training clients stronger. I talked a lot more about calling friends, writing letters to important people, and taking time to cultivate relationships. And you know what? My success rate at helping people transform their bodies rocketed upward.
Enter Porter’s Fast Company article. Perhaps you’re wondering what a piece about solitude has to do with strong social ties, and thus, our health. Let’s take a look at Porter’s reporting.
She quotes Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, on the link between solitude and human connection.
“How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”
As I rapidly approach the age of forty, I find myself valuing “real attachments” with people who share my values. A younger, more insecure version of me sought out relationships with people who allowed me to feel cooler but didn’t share my values. These proved to be empty, and sometimes painful personal experiences. Now that I take more time to understand who I am and what I value, I find myself forming more real attachments. Not coincidentally, I’m also stronger and healthier than I was at any point in my twenties.
This isn’t hocus pocus. It’s not an episode of Oprah. There’s no prize under your seat. This is the softer side of strength and we ignore it to our own detriment.
If the benefits of solitude are real, then what are some concrete measures we can enact to make the most of it?
- If you travel for work, listen or read instead of watch. I traveled to Seattle this week and came home with a notebook full of ideas for my own business. I resisted the urge to kill time with a movie, and instead let my mind wander along with John Coltrane. Planes are ideal for this type of pondering because we don’t often have the chance to just sit with our own thoughts.
- Take a walk. Busy people often ignore one of the best exercises they can because they don’t view it as intense. But walking–especially outside–has a whole host of benefits for mind and body.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. On your next drive to work, don’t turn on the radio. Don’t plug in your iPhone. Just drive. Pay attention to what you’re doing of course, but be alone with your thoughts.
- “Make an artist date.” This is directly from the Porter piece itself (which again, you should read in its entirety). Essentially this is scheduled time for yourself once a week when you are alone at a museum, on a scenic walk, or anywhere you can experience something new or interesting. I’ve recommended a version of this to executives that I coach who often resist because they view it as a waste of time. Those who have made the time for their version of an artist date, however, report having more space in their brains for strategic, deep thinking. This is something all of us could use, from homemaker to C-Suite mover and shaker.