Myths About Solitude

Providing you’re not in a state of longing, living in solitude can be its own powerful pleasure. Philip Roth

There is such a stigma is this country about doing things alone, about living alone that it was refreshing to read Leon Neyfakh’s critical review, “The Power of Lonely,” in last Sunday’s Boston Globe. Neyfakh suggests our views about living alone or even extended periods of solitude, call for a serious reevaluation.

It is widely believed that living alone increases the likelihood of illness and decreases longevity, that a solitary life also lessens a person’s skills in social relationships, diminishes their ability to deal with stressful experiences, and may impair their cognitive ability.

And yet. And yet, is this the whole story? Not according to an emerging series of studies that indicate the experience of living alone has a wide number of positive benefits. Neyfak’s describes some of them. His accounts are brief and since I have not read the original research, it is impossible to vouch for their reliability. With that caveat, here are some of the findings he mentions.

• Individuals form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they are experiencing them alone.

• “A certain amount” of solitude can enhance a person’s empathy for others.

• Periods of solitude in an otherwise active social life improve the mood and academic performance of teenagers.

• A survey of 320 University of Massachusetts undergraduates found that more people felt good about being alone than felt bad about it. The authors of the study also reported that the emphasis on loneliness induced by a solitary, isolated life represents an unnecessarily narrow view of the experience.

• In another study of teenagers, the teens reported feeling far less self-conscious when they were alone than when they were with their friends or classmates. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people.”

The conventional view is that excessive solitude leads to serious mental and physical problems. But what is excessive? And is that going to be the same for everyone? Neyfakh shrewdly observes, “But one person’s ‘too much’ might be someone else’s ‘just enough,’ and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.”

In his forthcoming book, Alone in America, Eric Klinenberg suggests that being alone can be a liberating, creative experience for some individuals. They’re able better regulate their time and “able to decompress at the end of a busy day…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

It is also true that being alone is less distracting than being in the company of others. When alone, a person is less concerned about what other people are thinking, and can focus more clearly on whatever task is at hand. Is there a writer who does not prefer to write alone, indeed, to consider it absolutely necessary for their craft?

The contemporary novelist Maryilynne Robinson sings the praises of solitude.

“I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it…I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.”

As one who spends a good deal of time alone, I share Robinson’s view. At times it is difficult, but once you get past that, its benefits are deeply satisfying and can be a source of much comfort and a considerable stimulation. As Robinson says, it’s not for everyone by any means, but for some reason, it is for me.


Stefanie said...

I definitely need significant amounts of alone time. If I don't get it I get cranky.

The above fore-mentioned. said...

Absolutely. I lived alone for a number of years, and while I love living with my partner, we both need alone time. I am currently working on my PhD from home and I can spend days by myself researching and writing and then Dylan comes home from work and I stop working too. I couldn't do what I need to do if I wasn't alone everyday. But I think it is balance, after a week of no human contact other than dinner and conversation with Dylan, I am craving conversations with other people, and some different points of view.

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie, it is hard for me to imagine you are ever cranky.

Fiona, I know how important it is to converse once in a while. Write any time.

Sean Wright said...

When ever I am alone for extended periods of time I generally start talking out loud to myself or the cat.

Richard Katzev said...

Sean, I am sure your cat replies, in its own way, of course.

Sean Wright said...

Usually when it want's food