Technology is impairing our ability to be alone, research shows

A series of studies showed people preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting still alone in a room ...

A series of studies showed people preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting still alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes.

As our lives become ever more connected, there are so few places we can go to truly be alone anymore.

Take airplanes. Airplanes were once disconnected sanctuaries where you had nothing to do except read, daydream, or doze off - "a retreat in the sky", in the words of one Buddhist monk.

But that's no longer the case. On a flight recently, a teenager across the aisle from me wasn't just watching a movie, but watching a movie on one screen and playing games on another - while a nearby passenger was working on his laptop, checking Facebook on his smartphone, and watching a show on the small television in front of his seat.

We may be "alone". But we're not really alone.

There's been a lot of attention devoted to how technology is scattering our attention and corroding our relationships, but less to how it's impairing our capacity for solitude.

We're so overstimulated that being alone has become unbearable - a fact that was highlighted in a series of studies from 2014 , where people preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting still alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes. In the lab, we shock ourselves; in real life, we reach for our phones in a lecture hall, in line - even when we're driving.

But to live a good life - and to become mature individuals - we need to be content with being alone with our own thoughts.

That's because the only way we can come to understand who we are and think through the critical decisions about our lives is through the self-examination that occurs in solitude.


That idea lies at the heart of a thoughtful new book Lead Yourself First by federal judge Raymond M. Kethledge and the chief executive of the Character & Leadership Center Michael S. Erwin.

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The book tells the stories of many inspiring leaders throughout history who relied on solitude at crucial moments in their lives, from Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II to Martin Luther King Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Creativity is one of the many benefits of solitude. But the benefits of solitude don't end there.

One study by the psychologist Reed Larson showed that adolescents who spend time alone are less likely to be depressed, do better in school, and feel less self-conscious when they're by themselves.

Paradoxically, it also strengthens our relationships. In studies of children at a device-free summer camps, the kids became more empathetic after spending time unplugged. "You have nothing to do," one boy said, "but think quietly and talk to your friends."

Though solitude brings many benefits with it, it's quickly being crowded out of our lives. Our minds are constantly assaulted by a sea of inputs-texts, emails, ads, and notifications.

According to psychologist Adam Alter, author of the book Irresistible, people spend nearly all of their free time - those precious three to four hours of each day - in the company of a screen. Which means they spend virtually no time alone.


But there are ways to make space for solitude in our lives.

In his book, Alter suggests this simple tip: put your phone far away from you when you're working or trying to be alone. That simple barrier will make you less likely to check it frequently.

He also mentions the example of a German company that automatically deletes employees' incoming emails when they're on holiday. That way, if they want to unplug, they really can.

If your company doesn't have a policy like that - and it probably doesn't - you can engineer something like it in your own life by, for example, deleting the email app on your phone when you're on vacation.

Kethledge and Erwin also offer advice. If you want to reclaim solitude, they suggest you should take advantage of the moments of solitude already programmed into your life.

You don't need to go into the wilderness for 40 days to be alone - you just need to turn the music off when you're driving to work or preparing dinner, or leave your phone in your pocket when you're waiting in line or for an appointment.

It requires discipline, but a discipline that brings with it many rewards.

Though it can be hard to resist the siren call of technology and sit still with your own thoughts, part of being a fully developed human being is making that difficult choice.

When there's no solitude, there's no self-examination - and without self-examination we can't grow and become better for ourselves and for those around us.

 - The Washington Post


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