The virtues of isolation are an opportunity for self-reflection, a change to change and improve yourself, better connection with nature, and increased creativity. In addition to this, isolation can improve empathy, concentration, and memory creation. It has its risks, but can be a net benefit if you approach it wisely.
Isolation is nothing new to me. Since moving to Bristol in 2012, I have spent most of my time living alone and working from home. These have not been a great combination and have made it so easy for me to stay indoors and away from other people.
Yet now my daily life, something I have been seeking to change, is going to be an abnormal situation for millions of others across England and maybe billions around the world. This article is not about the timely pandemic, but is about the virtues of isolation as a whole.
The virtues of self-isolation
This article on the virtues of self-isolation is divided into three parts:
Part 1: The virtues
Part 2: Negatives to be aware of
Part 3: Achieving the virtues
It is my profound wish that you find this article useful in the times to come. You may be isolated alone like me or you may have friends, flatmates, or family around you. Whatever situation you are in, it is down to you to make the best of it.
Part 1: Focus on the positives
Isolation is too often stigmatized and seen as defective. Yet we are missing out on its positives and its virtues. There are many of those. Like the joys of cake, however, they are taken in measures and not forever. I’m going to go through some of these virtues now and would love to learn more of them if you have them.
You can bring yourself closer to nature
Okay, so you’re holed up at home. For some of you that means an apartment in a high rise – I’ve been there. Not much nature going on. For others its sharing a room in a flat/apartment, and for others living in a house with a garden or two or twelve acres. The nature of your isolation is unique to you.
Yet, being alone can bring us in touch with nature. It can connect us to the world around us rather than the emotional world of human connectivity. The natural world is a huge part of grounding us and it’s something I’ve always noticed in my quiet moments.
Tiziano Terzani, an Italian journalist who in the 1980s decided to live alone for a while in rural Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, attested to this to the Atlantic Magazine. Terzani lived with his dog Baoli deep in the wilds for a month.
For the first time in a long time he felt free and then he began to notice more. He noticed the sway of the trees and how the wind blew through them. He connected with the seasons – found joy in butterflies and in silence, and he read more books. It was a great time for him.
You can build resiliency and skills
I’ve referenced this book below, but Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have produced an excellent book called The Coddling of the American Mind. In it they cover how over protection has led to weakened people. This is especially those who grew up in the 90s and after, but probably in part kids like me who grew up in the 80s too though to a lesser extent.
You imagine shielding as protection, but while a shield protecting you from an axe to the face is a good thing, a shield protecting you from an opportunity to grow stronger is not. Parents who have over sanitized their living conditions have created children vulnerable to viruses and infections. And the same is true of children who do not learn how to overcome troubles or who are able to call on others to fix their issues.
Once isolated you have an opportunity to build these resiliences. Of course it is best when you have more freedoms to get equipment or back up should it go wrong, but having resourcefulness and skills is vital if you’re on your lonesome or need to help others.
Use your time alone to build these skills. With the impending viral apocalypse and the slow shutdown of the nation, I’ve taken to growing my own salad vegetables. It’s a small step I know, but this is going to be a great skill to learn as well as a springboard to growing more vegetables and fruits in time.
Furthermore, I am teaching myself to bake better cakes and to bake better breads. This also means making more meals from long lasting ingredients. I’m excited to be honest and see this as a long overdue chance to develop much needed skills. Next up is tackling a plumbing challenge. That might be tougher as the stop cock isn’t stopping the water, so I’ll have to go to the in-street back up one and hope that’s working. Wish me luck.
You can take on long delayed projects
The other day I watched a YouTube video where football journalists were discussing the pandemic and what it meant for freelance writers like them. These ones are doing well for themselves and can cope with a reduction in work whereas most of us can’t.
However, one lady made a great point. Freelancers like them do well because they are creative and entrepreneurial, but they often have good ideas without the time to see them through. Their isolation, she said, would be an opportunity to finally get them done. Her plan required time to write and think, and time to talk to people on the phone.
As for myself, I’m using this period of isolation to finally get some writing and other projects started. I’ve been too slothful in my approach of late – too wrapped up in myself, and so on. But now I’m going to be alone for maybe up to 12 weeks (at the time of writing), I’m working on those writing, podcasting, and video projects. Now is a great time to finally get them done properly.
What are the psychological benefits of being alone?
We’ll go into the transformative potential of isolation below, but in this section I’ll turn to some psychological benefits of it. However, first, some fallacies.
These are not benefits of isolation
Firstly, you’re not going to escape the plague by being alone. Not really. I mean, if you stayed in the cabin in the deep woods forever you’d avoid it as well as avoiding everyone else, but if you ever contacted anyone again you might catch it off them and get it worse.
Second, going to your own place to be alone will not save you from personal corruption. It’s just like those who change cities to avoid their addiction. Well chum, it’s inside you not in the city. Just look at the Unabomber who went into isolation so he could make bombs. Avoiding the academic life which so ruined him only made him hate them more.
These are potential benefits of isolation
Ok, that’s enough negatives for a positivity section. Here are a few virtues of isolation:
Reduces depression: Now, when we get to the side effects of isolation we’re no doubt going to get something like “causes or deepens depression,” but as with many things in this beautiful, complicated life, what nourishes us can also poison us. Now, this depressive relief occurs during brief times of isolation and not during prolonged ones.
Better memory formation: While we’re highly evolved beings which have developed modes and abilities few to no other animals have, we have not evolved a resistance to eyewitness testimony. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with memory, but let me get there.
It is becoming better understood that eyewitnesses are rubbish at recalling details; especially if they did not know at the time that they ought to be recording such things. However, studies suggest that the brain acts differently should it be creating memories alone as opposed to in a group (even if that group is unrelated).
The brain quite often takes on a collective mindset that everyone together will get all of the details so the individual does not have to recall everything. However, when you are alone your brain is forced to build the entire memory by itself thus creating better memories.
Improves concentration: And therefore study too. Yes, classrooms are often seen as not ideal study places; especially for energetic boys (being a boy is now pathologized as ADHD). However, studies from various universities have shown studying alone not only builds on better memory formation but allows for better concentration.
Strengthens relationships: In The Coddling of the American Mind Haidt and Lukianoff look at how over protection breeds weaker humans. There are many examples where absence or stress can improve something. You have to stress muscles to build bigger ones. So it makes sense that having you-time, time to reflect and absorb things, actually means you can build better relationships when you’re reunited.
Improves empathy: Stereotypes sometimes reflect the accurate average, but quite often also fall prey to prejudice. A Harvard University study demonstrated that time spent away from people allowed individuals to better process emotional information and be more empathetic.
I’d like to quickly bring up autism/Asperger’s now. This way of being is often linked with an absence of empathy, but it can quite often be like black and white. Both black and white show no colours but one is an absence (black) and one is full of so much colour you’re blinded to it (white). Self-isolation can also occur in those who are overwhelmed by empathy.
Bring on the creativity: I have seen a number of people try to generate new ideas for projects by staring at pictures or videos of other people’s ideas. I used to try that. I’d read book reviews to get ideas for books. Never worked. I just came to the conclusion that commissioning editors had no clue what a good story looks like.
What brings on creativity? Boredom. As much as we want to tell ourselves that we are sentient conscious beings, the truth is a huge amount of processing is done in the deep recesses of the mind. Not only does it control our functions, heart rate, breathing (not always well), and so on, but it processes information, stimuli, and quite often ponders questions. Sometimes you wonder why it was pondering that question, but ponder it does.
This is why I’ve found total, utter boredom and a lack of stimulation best for idea generation. Just lay on the couch or do something mindless – wash up, iron clothes, go for a walk around a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape (or any other city if you don’t live in Bristol). In this time of isolation, let your brain breathe and create answers for you.
Isolation allows you to be you: In other words, bugger groupthink and go for real think. Lone geniuses and thinkers have always been on the periphery of society, but the societies that progressed the most were the ones who allowed oddballs to thrive the most. The awkward individual changes society, challenges bad norms, and invents solutions that improve everyday life. They usually did so in social isolation, shunned by their peers.
Don’t fall for the nihilists of society on this one. Freedom comes with responsibility and finding your genuine voice does not mean giving in to all your base desires. Not at all. Instead of being the sum of your peers, you can be the sum of your parts. This neatly brings me to the idea of isolation as a chance to go monk mode.
Why you should go monk mode
What is going monk mode? Well, this is a term used for many guys to take time away from society and to focus on self-improvement. That includes all of the above benefits and virtues of isolation.
Yet it goes further because these are happy virtues and opportunities of isolation. Self-isolation can also be about going through an internal process. Matthew Bowker at Medaille College says that productive isolation takes quite a bit of work and focus in order to make it a pleasant experience.
Yet for thousands of years hermits have attempted just that. To take themselves away from busy lives to live in isolation. They did it to find themselves, to find God, and to get away from the in-laws, but for many, monk mode means finding those positives.
And in doing so, you are using your self-isolation as a way to improve yourself away from the judgement or perceived judgement of others. Use that positive. Work out with the smaller weights as you build up, jump, skip, cycle on the indoor bike machine, do 5 sit ups, cry, then do 5 more. It’s fine.
I call this the chrysalis isolation because you’re going from a caterpillar to a butterfly though without the being turned into primordial goo bit of the process. That is the ultimate virtue of isolation – self-improvement. Learn a skill, improve your health, become resilient, and change your mindset/frame of mind.
Part 2: The physical and mental impact of isolation
What does isolation do to a person?
The amount of effect isolation has on an individual is dependent on three factors. This is the same as life in general really. We have our biological nature, the environment we’re in, and our reaction to it. And so we have similar factors (though I’ll add more) when isolated:
- Our biological nature including psychological framework
- Our mental point of origin
- The nature of the isolation – total, imprisonment, homebound, monk mode
- Why or how we ended up in isolation
- Our actual and virtual support networks
- Expected duration of the isolation
- How you choose to respond to all this
No doubt you can conjure up a few more elements, but these do fall into the 3 main categories. As with the three pronged biological nature idea above, the final point in this list is dependent on all of the other ones, but you need all of them to make the equation work.
We should be aware of course that there is a good reason most people and most research is done into the negatives of isolation. It can exact a big toll on us even if there are some of us less bound by the bonds of society who wish to enjoy some peace and quiet in the woods (I say us even though I’ve never truly thought of living alone, I just happen to end up like it too often).
One: Isolation and your mental health
In the virtues of isolation I mentioned mental health benefits including reducing depression, increasing empathy, and so on. However, there are many negatives too. Isolation can worsen or cause some of the following:
- Cognitive decline
- Mood disorders
I’ve struggled with some of these during my prolonged periods of isolation. It’s not been fun and part of it stems from it not being an ideal isolation in the countryside, but an urban one which feels more like a prison than a chrysalis.
Anxiety is a big one. I can deal with depression through entertainment, productivity, and so on, but anxiety seems to creep up on you. It grows and causes big problems which does go away when you see others and spend time with others.
Two: Isolation and your physical health
It is sad to say that isolation increases your risk of an untimely death. This is especially so in older people. Limited social contact increases the risk of physical problems as well as the mental ones listed above. Before quickly looking at them, it is worth noting that the mental can affect the physical and vice versa. Here’s some fun facts to worry your ass off during your period of isolation:
- You are 30% more likely to die
- One researcher says loneliness is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day
In addition to this, physical ailments related to prolonged isolation include:
- Cardiovascular impairment
- Chronic pain
These can be difficult to deal with especially because they feed off of and in turn feed mental health problems too. Some of these can be mitigated through exercise, laughter and so on. That neatly leads me to the final section – tips on dealing with isolation.
Part 3: Practical tips to thrive while isolated
The virtues of isolation need to be built on a solid platform. This requires us to take a good mental and physical approach. We cannot sit on the couch watching TV all day; especially overwhelmingly negative news, and hope to be ok. In our modern interconnected world we need to balance virtual connection with monk mode meditation. Let’s dive into it.
This is about you – finding the personal virtues of isolation
It is no coincidence that the worst ideologies to stride the world have been totalitarian ones which apply themselves to all people and exorcise those who do not conform. And so with all things, dealing with isolation is not about a blueprint or a system which will apply to everyone.
Instead this is about you, but bear in mind also that what you do will affect others; especially if you are sharing your isolation with them in a confined space. And so, how you react to isolation determines what you’ll get out of it.
You might not have chosen isolation, but it’s here now. So take some time at first to meditate on the idea of isolation and what you want to get out of it. For myself, I want to build my website, make a podcast finally, and to finally finish a novel. What about you?
Practice information minimalism, but not eradication
Modern technology and access to information is great; except it isn’t. Not really. We rely too much on it and we let it in all the time. How many of us have a boss who messages us all the time wanting work done? Too many.
The virtues of isolation are best gained through limited contact and a controlled information flow. Not like Jared Leto who went to meditate in the desert in 2020 only to find a global pandemic when he came back.
Instead, set aside a time each day or every few days to update yourself on what’s going on, but limit the flow. Be careful and consider your needs. Try not to binge yourself on negative information too, but keep it practical and useful.
Become task focused
While free do nothing time is vital to generating creativity and inspiration, too much of it rots the mind, body, and soul. Therefore you can pass the time by creating task lists. Jot down what your tasks are and go about setting them in action. For example, I first set about provisions for my home, then I set about collecting information books on herbs and growing food, and then I got the equipment for my first grow.
The power of the arts: music and literature
Surround yourself with something I call “mood positives.” That’s mood improving things. This is not just good, healthy food, or phone conversations, but things like music and books. Listening to music and reading books will improve your mood. Make use of these powerful things.
Why not movies? Sure, movies and TV can perform a function, but of the three main media – the aural, the visual, and the word, movies have the least positivity. Not only that, I would suggest sitting in front of the TV has a dampening effect on your well-being etc…
Most important last: focus on your personal goals
This builds on the task one. Your personal goals are the transformation you seek from your period of isolation. It is not merely enough to survive isolation, but to thrive also. In fact, I would posit that surviving isolation in part comes from the desire to thrive and to improve.
Set out your goals and be reasonable and kind to yourself. Yet also know that you will have to take tough decisions and really push yourself to succeed. All of the discipline and all of the pressure, the willpower to succeed is on you. It comes from you. It is driven by you. You might start slow and find building a rhythm difficult, but you will get there.
Finally, you will enjoy your favourite things again
Tell me, why does chewing gum lose its flavour after a few minutes of chewing? Is it because the gum is no longer sweet? No, you have not sucked all of the sweetness out of it.
The gum loses nothing, but rather your taste buds become accustomed to it. This is why you can take it out, store it, wait ten minutes, pop it back in again, and taste its sweetness once more.
Try to think about your social isolation in the same manner. It is not forever, and yes you’ll be denied some of your favourite things and people in the world, but when we come through this, and we will, they will be there for you. Not only there for you, but unlike chewing gum which lets face it is a bit manky on re-use, your favourite things will be all the sweeter.
Conclusion: make isolation a chrysalis not a prison
The idea behind going monk mode is not to hide away from the world, but to look inward at self-improvement. In a way you are treating your isolation as a chrysalis. That is to say as a pod for changing who you are – to implement new modes of thinking, new habits, to learn new skills, and to improve yourself physically.
We have seen there are risks to isolation. A lot of them. Yet the greatest risk of all is if you treat it not as a chrysalis for personal improvement, but as a prison. In an inescapable prison of the mind you shall truly go mad.
So no, as with all other aspects of life, look for the virtues and the positives. Look for the opportunities to better your lot in a moral manner. In doing so you shall not only improve yourself, but also your family and a community as a whole.