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Archive for June, 2011

Here’s what makes solitude so sweet

Unlike the readers of my last post, who were so articulate and insightful about the sweetness of solitude, many professional researchers have had a much harder time recognizing that solitude can actually be beneficial. Maybe part of the reason is that psychologists – especially social psychologists – are so attuned to humans as social animals who need and crave connection with other people. In fact, the title of a journal article that has attracted much attention over the years is “The need to belong.”

I don’t dispute the social needs of humans. I just don’t see them as incompatible with an appreciation for solitude. To get a sense of psychologists struggling with the notion that time alone can actually be a good thing, consider these two examples of titles of journal articles:

  • “When the need to belong goes wrong”
  • “Finding pleasure in solitary activities: desire for aloneness or disinterest in social contact?”

Titles such as these seem to suggest that if you spend time alone, there must be something wrong with you. Maybe your need to belong has “gone wrong.” Maybe you don’t really want to be alone, you are just anxious and avoiding other people. But that’s not what the studies show. Some people really do want their time alone and regard it as something positive and constructive; they are not skittishly fleeing scary humans.

In a study of fifth through ninth graders, Reed Larson found that over time, the older children choose to spend more time alone. What’s more, their emotional experience was improved after they had spent some time on their own. Those adolescents who spent an intermediate amount of time alone – not too much, not too little – seemed to be doing the best psychologically.

The psychologists who really do get it about the sweetness of solitude are the ones I mentioned in my last post – Christopher Long and James Averill. The title of their key theoretical article is “Solitude: An exploration of the benefits of being alone.” No apology. No befuddlement that humans might actually benefit from their time alone.

Here’s how they characterize solitude:

“The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people – a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental and physical activities.”

Many readers made similar observations in the comments they posted to Part 1. Although there can be benefits to spending time with others, there can also be rewards to “disengagement from the immediate demands of other people.”

There is research (again by Larson) in which people are beeped at random times during the day and asked about their experiences. Unsurprisingly, people report feeling less self-conscious when they are alone than when they are with others.

Other than the welcome emotional respite, what’s so good about feeling less self-conscious? Long and Averill think that it is good for creativity. They note findings from other research showing that adolescents who can’t deal with being alone are less likely to develop their creative abilities.

The theme that resonates most with me is the argument that other people can be distracting and taxing. I’m not talking specifically about being with people who are annoying and demanding. Instead, the idea is that just having other people around – even wonderful other people – can sap some of your cognitive and emotional resources. You might, even at some very low level, use up some of your psychological energy wondering about their needs and concerns, or considering the impression you may be making on them (even if you are not insecure about that), or maybe even just sensing their presence when you are sharing the same space and not even conversing.

There is a freedom that comes with solitude, and (as Long and Averill note) it is both a freedom from constraints and a positive freedom to do what you want and let your thoughts wander. Here’s another quote from them that I especially appreciate, as it showcases their perspective that spending time alone and getting something out of it can be a strength, rather than a cause for concern:

“the (positive) freedom to engage in a particular activity requires more than simply a freedom from constraint or interference: it also requires the resources or capacity to use solitude constructively.”

Antarctic researchers, who have chosen a pursuit that requires spending a lot of time alone, score especially high on a scale measuring “absorption.” The scale assesses enjoyment of experiences such as watching clouds in the sky, and becoming particularly absorbed in a movie you are watching.

In solitude, Long and Averill suggest, we sometimes think about ourselves and our priorities in new ways. Our thinking about other matters, too, may be more likely to be transformed during times of solitude.

The particular intersection of solitude and single life – like so many other aspects of solitude – has yet to be studied in any detail. My guess is that people who are single – especially if they are single at heart – like their solitude more than people who crave coupling do. I’ll end with one more quote from Long and Averill. They were not discussing single people when they said it, but it strikes me as relevant:

“…cognitive transformation can be threatening rather than liberating. At the very least, in order to benefit from solitude, the individual must be able to draw on inner resources to find meaning in a situation in which external supports are lacking.”

References:

Long, C. R., & Averill, J. R. (2003). Solitude: An exploration of the benefits of being alone. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 33, 21-44.

Larson, R. W. (1997). The emergence of solitude as a constructive domain of experience in early adolescence. Child Development, 68, 80-93.

Bella DePaulo is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara. belladepaulo.com

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Published on March 20, 2011 by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D. in Living Single

You poor thing – you’re ‘alone’ – you ‘don’t have anyone.” I’ve been railing against this use of the word alone to describe single people for a long, long time (here and here, for example).  To say that single people are alone, in this sense, is to believe that unless you have a spouse or romantic partner, you don’t have anyone. By this manner of thinking, all of the other important people in our lives, such as friends, relatives, neighbors, mentors, and colleagues, just aren’t anyone at all.

There is another meaning of alone, though, that also gets pinned on single people, and in a bad way. That’s the time that we spend with no one else around. More than 31 million of us live alone. (That’s a striking number, but because more than 100 million Americans are divorced, widowed, or have always been single, it falls far short of the majority of us.) Of course, even living alone does not preclude the possibility of having other people around – even lots of them – but it can add up to lots of time spent with no other hovering humans.

Solitude

Those who would pity us for the time we spend alone think of our experiences as loneliness. That’s the negative sense of being by yourself – having no other humans present with whom you can connect in a meaningful way, but wishing that you did. Surely, there are singles who feel lonely when they are in their homes (or even out and about) on their own, just as there are coupled people who feel lonely when their romantic partner is not at their side. But there is far more to the experience of being alone than feeling miserable and lonely. There is a reason (actually lots of them) why solitude is so often called sweet. We just don’t hear about that as often.

Researchers in psychology need to own up to their fare share of the blame in this equation of spending time alone (or living alone) with loneliness. Type solitude into PsycInfo, probably the most comprehensive database for scholarly articles in psychology, and you will get 592 references. Doesn’t sound so bad, until you take a close look at them and realize how few are based on empirical research (those articles are tagged as phenomenology, psychoanalysis, narratives, and spirituality, among other categories) and how many construe solitude in a bad way. (For example, #13 of the 592 is about “anxious solitude.”) Now type in loneliness, and you get 5,128 references.

Slowly – very slowly – this is beginning to change. Christopher Long and James Averill wrote an article that provides the theoretical grounding that future empirical researchers can use as a guide. “Solitude: An exploration of the benefits of being alone,” appeared in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior in 2003 (vol. 33, pp. 21-44). Now, when I check back to see if anything new on solitude has popped up in PsycInfo, I am sometimes pleasantly surprised.

Notwithstanding all of the psychologists fretting about loneliness, real people living their real lives often seem to crave time alone, then savor it when they get it. That’s my sense, based mostly on unsystematic observations. (For example: A 2008 post, The American psyche: Tipping toward solitude?, has been one of my most popular. A more recent one, Extraversion and the single person, has also been popular.)  It is time for researchers to show us the numbers.

It is not only when you are home alone that you can experience solitude. Solitude also happens in nature and even when you are alone in a crowd. I’m withholding Long and Averill’s definition of solitude for now, because it would give away too much of what I’d like you to think about while I work on the second part in this series. If you like this topic, generate your own ideas of what’s so sweet about solitude. (Post them in the comments section if you are willing.) Think not just about emotional aspects (though those surely matter a lot), but also cognitive and intellectual ones. (For example, are you smarter or more creative when you are on your own?) Consider, too, the big questions of who you are and who you want to be, what (and whom) you believe in, and what you think is most important in life. Is solitude especially good for that sort of pondering? Don’t dismiss the little or mundane things, either. Is there something special about making your way through your everyday routines when you are on your own?

Let’s take back our time alone! It is about sweet solitude, not just loneliness.

Bella DePaulo is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara. belladepaulo.com

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