Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello, I am Henry Emmons, and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee: I am Aimee Prasek. Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on building the elements of joy. Those are the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks for a joyful life. So we're playing with our element of fun lately. And so, last episode, we explored isolation and loneliness, which were the opposites of fun.
And in this one we're talking about solitude. If we're doing a free association test, and I said, tell me the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word fun. I'm sure loneliness, isolation, or solitude were not on those lists. But, what we wanna talk about in this episode is how solitude can ultimately fuel fun. Really, I think is the most important part here, it can down regulate our nervous system. It can just calm our system. It can creativity and motivation. It can help you tap into what really matters for you, uniquely. And some other good stuff that we'll get into.
So to just put us on the same page, I want to roughly define solitude. And although it absolutely can look different for each of us, solitude is voluntarily being alone and without any other activities, devices, or stimuli, that kind of pulls us away from a kind of engagement with ourselves. So I think it's helpful to compare that with loneliness or isolation, like we talked about last episode. Which on the surface may look the same, right? We might be alone. But the inner experience of loneliness, is really anchored in a desire for what or who isn't with you. You feel that void. There's sort of a deep lacking in loneliness. And same with isolation or social isolation as we talked about last episode. Solitude is not that that it feels full.
Henry: Yes. As I mentioned last week, I sometimes crave solitude. Even though usually I'm very social. When I need it, solitude feeds me like almost nothing else I know of. But I do need to do it in a way that kind of works for me. And I'm gonna say a little bit more about that later, I think. So, I like how you said that they can look kind of similar on the surface, Aimee.
And I, I've often noticed the similarities also between something like depression and grief, which is kind of a, useful metaphor. I think. Because depression and grief might feel very similar, the felt experience of it. But depression shuts us down or depletes us or both. Whereas grieving, if we don't get stuck in it, can actually be quite freeing and even open us up more.
So, you know, healthy grieving can really help us move through the sense of loss. Which, you know, every one of us experiences at some time or another. So, similarly, loneliness, just feels bad, and it is also depleting. But solitude, when we relish it and use it well. It can really be freeing and even energizing. Which seems like a paradox.
I personally come out of my periods of intentional solitude, generally feeling really renewed and refreshed and like, okay, I'm ready to reengage with the world for a while. I got enough juice to to keep me going for a while.
Aimee: Yeah, I am. I'm liking that parallel of depression and grief that you just noted, Henry. Grief can just tear you apart. But when when it's it's in connection with others, that tearing, think this...
Aimee: it's visceral here. It can really create some openings like you're describing, in such a profound way. Like places to really deepen connection. Uh, on the flip side, it reminds me how treacherous grief can be when you isolate yourself.
Uh, I've been there and it's the of the worst worst.
Aimee: wanna talk about grief in a future episode, so let's put that up on the future episodes board as well.
Aimee: Good. All right, so for now, I think it can be helpful to call out some obstacles to solitude, to choosing to be alone. As I always do, call out the obstacles.
Henry: You do
Aimee: I do! The pessimist in me. Sorry, folks. Uh, the, it's not a problem. The first is just the social actually. So, what's the first thing listeners, all of us here, what's the first thing comes to your mind when I say table for one, please?
Henry: First thing for that comes to my mind is, is uh, Tedd Lasso episode. Where Nate the great goes into the restaurant and you know, all by himself and sits kind of at a table and it is kind of, yeah, it's kinda lonely and sad.
Henry: at first.
Aimee: exactly right. This is never a great depiction. Yeah. We see it in movies. It's like, oh, you're a table for one. How sad.
Aimee: Yeah. love being at a table for one, lemme tell you. There's, so there's a lot of pressure to be social, like perpetually social in US culture, I think. Extroversion is rewarded. Doing more, with more people, having a bigger network, being everywhere. There's a lot of pressure to always be hustling and consuming. Now, there are lots of reasons for all that, but just in the context of solitude, it makes solitude look like a negative, right? Table for one. When it comes to mental health, of course fulfilling relationships are essential, meaningful connections are so predictive for good mental health. So choosing to be alone seems counter to that, right?
Henry: Yeah. You know, I, I think that in this case, our culture has dealt as kind of a bad hand. You know, we as a culture value individualism more than anywhere else in the world that I know of. And yet, if you look at us, it's looks like sometimes we can be social to the point of distraction. It's almost like we're defending ourselves against the loneliness that can come from this intense individualism that we hold onto. Which is maybe a downward spiral, you know, like we have ref referred to in the past.
Aimee: Well said.
Henry: You know, I, I used to lead resilience retreats. I'm, I'm going off on a little tangent here, but bear with me, and I'm just remembering that one of, of the participant's favorite meditations was a simple breathing practice. And when I led this, this meditation, I just really emphasized this rhythm that we have with, with our breath of expansion and contraction. You know, inflow and outflow. And I used it as a metaphor. A reminder that what is really healthy for us is that after a period of activity, we need a period of rest. After being really stressed, we need a time of recovery. After getting depleted, we need an opportunity to be renewed or refilled. And that is how things work. Just normally in the natural world, there is a rhythm to things, a flow. I call it flowing with nature. And really this, okay, now I'm bringing this back to solitude.
This is how I think of solitude. It is kind of like the outbreath that we need after this deep in-breath of companionship or extroversion. Now, the true extroverts, and there are some, but I'm thinking right now of the real outliers, you know, the top. One to 5% of extroverts. They may not need much of this, quite honestly, but I think that the other 80 or 90% of us, we need this chance to be by ourselves to turn inward for a while.
I think it's just as important as breathing out after breathing in. It helps us to reconnect with ourselves at least a little bit more deeply. You could say it's kind of like the yin inside of fun and play where our energy is going inward instead of just outward.
Aimee: Yeah solitude as an exhale. I like that. That opportunity, to release reminds me of a piece from Descartes' um Meditations. From his Meditations that I love. Here it is " Now, therefore, that my mind is free from all cares and that I have obtained for myself assured leisure in peaceful solitude, I shall apply myself seriously and freely the general destruction of all my former opinions."
I love that!
Henry: I do too. I've not heard that, Aimee. You are very well read. Man. You have a lot of different sources that you pull from.
Aimee: In my genres. Yeah, I just love that. I mean, it gives us a chance to, this solitude, it gives us a chance to gain some space between, right, some freedom from all the opinions that can keep us so rigid and revved up. To speak to some of the science here as well, related to what you just said, Henry as well, but not as poetic the inhales and exhales, has to do with arousal states. So when arousal states are discussed, they're usually described as a spectrum from deep sleep, to which is the lowest arousal state, to stress and agitation, the highest arousal states.
I noted before, US culture and others as well, really incentivize those high arousal states. So this looks like lots of energy going out, um, but also like consuming, hustling, lots of sensory input coming in, being overscheduled, and the result from all of this stuff is a nervous system buzzing pretty high. And none of these arousal states are wrong. The problem is being on one side for too long. Or being on one side, uh, out of context, even. The goal is to match the context, that flow with nature, and to notice what you uniquely need moment to moment based on your own functioning.
One more thing here. There's also a lot of pressure, I think, for something called high arousal, positive affect states. This describes those observable, outward expressions of emotional states like happiness, alertness, sociable. So in this case, these are high energy outputs of positivity. Those are high arousal states. There's a lot of pressure as well to be in these high arousal affect affect states, display them. energy on top of high energy. So if we're living there, then that constant state of high arousal is exhausting for our system. It can spike our stress response, in a good way at first, but too much is too much. That's where toxic positivity lies, in my opinion as well.
Henry: Hmm. That makes so much sense, Aimee. The way, the way you just described that.
Aimee: I like this sort of layering of thinking, what we demand in our culture. It's these high arousal states, and then you better show it You better
Henry: Yeah. Yeah. No high, high energy on top of high energy. I like the way that you put that.
Aimee: Well, and now on the flip side, there's the low arousal state. There's some great research here that has looked at how solitude can bring us there. And this isn't deep sleep but it can be, um, like just above there. We're awake, but we're feeling at ease, peaceful. Allowing ourselves to soak in some low arousal. Allowing our body and mind some much needed rest.
So, the challenge is, for us are to really tune in and discern when we need to move, I think, into low arousal, solitude, perhaps, or even on that note, maybe we need to move into high arousal. So at natural mental health, with our resilience types, we actually address this. For example, some folks may sway more into kind of a melancholic, low arousal state more easily. So if that's the case, maybe you've got your fill of solitude or it needs to be revamped in some way, and it may even be time to explore some higher arousal states. Um, for many of us, I encourage everyone to take the resilience quiz over at NaturalMentalHealth.com to see where you might fall, many of us lean toward more anxious, worried, or agitated when we're out of balance, I think. Uh, maybe cause of sort of that high energy on high energy. Uh, and those moments are just craving some low arousal. Just a pendulum swing back into more of a balanced state, um, which solitude can offer.
Henry: Yeah, that's a, just a great reminder, Aimee, that we are not all built alike. You know, we have different needs even for connection and solitude. And I like that you brought up the resilience types. You know, there are folks that simply feel better when they do things that energize 'em, that, that bring up their state of arousal, like you put it.
So a grounded type, for example, uh, the resilience type that we call grounded type. Um, sometimes they can get a little sluggish if they aren't careful, you know, and, and need a little bit of extra stimulation once in a while. And we actually give some what I think is really sound guidance for that, you know, on the the website, just some ideas that are healthy and and positive, but do kind of bring up that state of arousal.
But I bet if you looked at a hundred people, just took a hundred people randomly, I bet, that in, in the arousal high over aroused versus under aroused, I bet that it'd be about 80% in the over aroused state. That's what I see anyway. And I think it just can really cause a lot of, a lot of difficulty for us.
So if you're resilience type, for example, is the passionate or enthusiastic type or a creative type like me, then it doesn't take much to put you into that overdrive to make you hyper aroused.
Henry: So that is what happened to me when I was in my medical and psychiatric training. Believe me. I look back on that time and I honestly don't know how I did it.
I mean, I was highly stressed basically for eight years, probably more because it took me a long time to unwind from that. And it just never let up, you know? So I was in a high arousal state, to put it mildly. But my solution that I came up with back then really set a helpful tone for the rest of my life to this day around this topic of solitude.
' cause here's what I did. I had no personal experience with silent retreats like you mentioned earlier, Aimee, you did one last year and I had never done one at that point in my life. But I had a sense that that is what I needed. I didn't know anything about mindfulness or you know, Buddhist practices or anything. And I don't know that there was anything available even, but what I did do was look around for retreat centers near where I was studying in Iowa City. And sure enough, there was a Catholic Trappist monastery in rural Iowa, not that far from Iowa City, and even though I was not and never had been Catholic and I knew nothing about Trappists, who are Catholic monks that have a very deep tradition of contemplative spirituality. And that's really what appealed to me. This, kind of quiet, contemplative practice. Now, turns out that Trappists also have a very strong tradition of hospitality, so they welcomed guests like me into their daily rhythm, their daily life. Even though I had absolutely no intention of ever becoming a monk.
But, I'll tell you what, this could not have been better for me at the time. They taught me to be quiet and reflective to kind of honor this daily rhythm of work, alternating with contemplation. They taught me to do something called centering prayer, which, you know, years later I realized is very similar to mindfulness meditation.
So I would go to this retreat center probably for three or four days at least try to get there at least a couple times a year. If I was even more stressed, I might try to go more often 'cause it was what I needed. And I would come out of it feeling renewed, more balanced, more grounded, ready to go back into how hyper arousal mode again without falling apart, at least for a while. And then I had to do it again.
Aimee: A daily rhythm is what caught me there too, Henry I think that's it. It really is about tuning into our rhythm and shifting to what we need, when we need it. You tuned into that even though you didn't know, what it was, um, or maybe couldn't explain it. You knew that's what you needed. I think that's really beautiful.
I also know it can be hard to carve out time though to do this. You know, maybe we have a picture of what it looks like. Life can be busy. Certainly do that to ourselves in a lot of ways. But society, our culture around work, policies that promote overwork do this to us as well. And I said last episode that I did my silent retreat last year was amazing, but it was hard to carve time out. I'm grateful I did it, but it, it doesn't have to be something so intense. You do not have to go to a monastery either you don't need to do a silent retreat or find a cave in a faraway land and live on the food that you forage.
Henry: that is an option.
Aimee: these are all options.
Henry: if it appeals to you.
Aimee: absolutely, man. But you can also dig in the garden for 15 minutes or so. That's what I like to do, sort of that
Aimee: Um, for solitude. I do it when the weather allows daily, I'm not even good gardener. I mean, yesterday I found the most amazing caterpillar who had eaten much of my parsley, and he was trying to sort of move away from the garden, I think in search of more parsley.
So I picked him up and I put him on the other area where the parsley was. As a gardener, that's probably a terrible thing to do. But in my solitude, I was like, it was just this wonderful fat caterpillar. It was such a great experience. I thought, well, he's hungry. Let's come over here. So terrible gardening advice, but it was a wonderful little 15 minutes of caterpillar transport and softening my nervous system.
Henry: Yeah. Yeah. You and Maizie are learning together, I think, how to, how to be contemplative. I love it.
Aimee: Uh, yes. This is a good process to practice with children because she has inspired me in many ways as well. Kids do this well, surprisingly, I think.
Henry: Yes. Yeah. I think you're right. It's just a very natural thing.
Henry: Well, like you were saying, Aimee, I, I still crave solitude once in a while, but I don't need to do several days at once anymore like I used to. I, if, if I can get it, I'll take it. Believe me. But like as you said, it's hard to do. So an afternoon for me, uh, at this point in my life is golden.
So if I find, if I can, I'll, I'll do that. But even an hour or less, you know, 20 minutes, 30 minutes is still good for me. What I usually try to do is to get out into nature just 'cause that always makes it easier for me to really unwind and, and get present. But even if I can't be immersed in nature, I just might spend some time being quiet by myself.
Maybe pick up my journal, do a little writing. Or sometimes I'll just take some time to do some reflecting. You know what what is it in my life right now that feeds me? What are the things that are eating away at me that are stealing my joy? Just trying to trying to reflect on them, not figure them out, but just, just become more aware of them.
And also, I'm becoming more aware that this time doesn't even have to look like you're being productive or anything. You know? Sometimes for me just doing a crossword or simply zoning out, anything that quiets my mind can help me to reset. I love this quote that I think is accurately attributed to A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh.
" Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits."
I love that.
Henry: So if the kind of solitude that we're talking about has already been part of your life, you don't need us to convince you of its value. You know, you can replenish yourself and your passion and creativity pretty easily. And as Aimee said earlier, it can also be so healing. For me, it, it is almost like magic.
When I get a good dose of solitude, it feels like I'm just repairing all of these little wounds that have been building up inside of me. You know, the little day-to-day hurts that aren't a huge deal, but they kind of add up and it just seems like it, this repair happens with no effort on my part. I'm just being quiet and allowing the pain to flow away out of me.
If you're new to it, solitude might seem a little daunting. You know, maybe being alone with yourself just does not sound that great. You're a little scared of it even. But I can guarantee you this, when you encounter yourself, your true self, which you can do with this practice, we're calling solitude, you will be very glad that you did.
There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of because you will find that below the surface, it's all love.
Aimee: Yeah, it's all love. If you're on YouTube, I didn't know I'm wearing a shirt that says more love.
Henry: more love
Aimee: Yeah, man. Let's see more of that love within us in those quiet moments. You're right, it is transformative and that is what is there to see. Uh, with that, I wanna bring us to a close with some wisdom from the great writer and sage, Maya Angelou Here's what she wrote:
"Solitude can be a much to be desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times, it is positively to to be wished for. In the silence, we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves to ourselves. And in the quietude, we may even hear the voice of God.
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