The beauty of being alone

Last updated 13:33 13/02/2014
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In our desire to "connect" with others have we lost the valuable ability to connect with ourselves?

Solitude is strongly linked to a sense of freedom, transcendence, imagination, intellect and the ability to think better for ourselves. But the idea of being "alone" is a source of great angst for many. 

"How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world... which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and above all, individualism... but at the same time [at a place where] these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?"

This is the question Sara Maitland asks in her new book How to Be Alone.

In one recent survey, 66 per cent of respondents said they feared losing or being without their phone, while, if you go to the movies by yourself, you risk being called "a pathetic loser". People, research shows, are also more likely to stay in an unsatisfying relationship for fear of being alone.

So we cling to our phones for dear life, leave solo-movie missions to those who like to dabble in extreme sports, remain lonely even if we are not necessarily alone and, as Maitland puts it, extend our "social contacts as a sort of insurance policy".

Take a moment to extract your eye from your screen and you will see that most of us spend our "alone" time "together" on our phones or on social networking sites. One study found we check our phones, on average, every 6 1/2 minutes. Hell, we can't even walk down the street without "connecting".  

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We live in a society with an "immensely strong focus on stimulation, engagement and interaction", Maitland says. So too many of us have "no experience of and no capacity for solitude".

Another part of the problem, Maitland and others suggest, is that we confuse being alone with loneliness.

One 2003 study by the University of Massachusetts found that traditionally, psychology has focused "on the negative experiences associated with being alone, particularly loneliness". 

The paper's authors, however, argue that "solitude, in contrast to loneliness, is often a positive state - one that may be sought rather than avoided".

A caveat, of course, is that solitude should involve choice. It is positive when seen as a chance to retreat, reboot and reconnect with ourselves.

"Being solitary is being alone luxuriously immersed in doing things of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others," author Alice Koller says. "Because solitude is an achievement."

An extended sense of isolation or loneliness, on the other hand, can be extremely detrimental to both our physical and psychological health, research shows.

We're social creatures, so it's about balance - and balance means different things to different people. Long stretches of solitude are likely to be far more fulfilling to the introvert than the extrovert, for instance.

But taking time out doesn't always have to be joyful in order for it to have a positive impact.

In one study Reed Larson, who has extensively researched the effects of solitude, found that despite not being happier when they were on their own, teenagers (not younger kids) who spent about a quarter of their downtime alone were better adjusted emotionally, more successful in school and less likely to self-report depression. 

"The paradox was that being alone was not a particularly happy state," Larson says. "But there seemed to be kind of a rebound effect. It's kind of like a bitter medicine."

Other research has revealed that we tend to perform better on tasks, have better memory recall and think more clearly alone, arguably because, in groups, we "instinctively mimic others' opinions" and alone we are not "social-loafing" and letting others do our thinking for us. 

Interestingly, some solitude can also help us engage better with others.

"People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely and not being alone means being with other people," says John Cacioppo, co-author of the book Loneliness. "You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break." 

When viewed in this way, solitude is no longer scary. The beauty of being alone sometimes is that not only can it help us create richer connections with others, it can connect us back to a better version of ourselves.

In her book, Maitland points to the poem The Prelude by William Wordsworth:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

- Sydney Morning Herald


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