The importance of solitude

I linked yesterday to an article in the Boston Globe about studies on the importance of solitude. I read that article and re-read it and wanted to say some things about my reaction to it, because I’m still thinking about solitude, social interactions and how I relate to loved ones and friends. And I’m thinking about how much alone time (or lack thereof, actually) I have in my life regularly.
For the first 18 years of my life, I was never alone at all. I grew up with four brothers and a sister, a mom and a dad and a cat and a dog. There was never alone time in our house, or in our lives. There was always discussion, always noise, always activity, always engagement with other people. We were at home, we were at school, there was little opportunity to be by ourselves for any of us, and I think that affected everyone in the family to some degree as we developed.

An interesting point from the article:

That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. They then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see. In some cases they were told they’d both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they’d be doing different things. The computer screen scrolled through a set of drawings of common objects, such as a guitar, a clock, and a log. A few days later the participants returned and were asked to recall which drawings they’d been shown. Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task — namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures — did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

… Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

I used to regularly lock myself in the bathroom to get away from my family members, so that I could just be by myself. That’s also one of the reasons I loved to read – curled up in the corner of my bed, buried in a book, disengaged from the cacophony in the house – that was heaven to my brain; time for me, time away.

And traveling with my family as a group – oh my god. Chaos. Anarchy. Like being on a chain gang with batshit insane people whose only aim is to poke you in the eye, literally and figuratively. And these are people that I love, that I’d walk through fire for.

As much as I love my family, I LOVED college because I had free time away from other people, finally. I had a lot of creative endeavors when I was single. I got a lot of cool shit done. But it was also way too much free time alone – I was lonely for the first time when I was single. I wanted to be in love, to be in a relationship, to build a home and a life together with someone. Growing up with a big family means that you know what it means to be part of a team; to collaborate, to work together and to share everything. That is something I longed to have in my life regularly again, and was so happy to get. I’m so fortunate that I now have that. It’s tremendously valuable to me.

And because I’m so happy to have a collaborator, Stephanie and I spend a heck of a lot of time together – so much so that the only time we’re not around each other outside of work is when she’s skating — and usually I am at home with the dog and cats. Sure, they’re not people, but they do command a lot of attention. Because I was so happy to finally have the life I wanted for so long, I don’t think I really paid that much attention in the last few years to how little down time either of us have from interacting with others.

But I think it shows up for me in lots of little ways – my frustration with not feeling like I have a creative outlet, my irritation while planning vacations and travel, my annoyance with some of the day-to-day responsibilities of my job. I think both Stephanie and I need to have a few hours every week to just get away and think, and then to go home and be part of a team again. It seems like a little bit of alone time is a good thing:

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.

But I also don’t want to spend too much time alone… I love my wife and family, too.

The nice thing about medicine is it comes with instructions. Not so with solitude, which may be tremendously good for one’s health when taken in the right doses, but is about as user-friendly as an unmarked white pill. Too much solitude is unequivocally harmful and broadly debilitating, decades of research show. But one person’s “too much” might be someone else’s “just enough,” and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.

Research is still far from offering any concrete guidelines. Insofar as there is a consensus among solitude researchers, it’s that in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.

Maybe at times that Stephanie is out skating, I should get out of the house and go for a walk, take my camera, take a notebook and write, photograph and think. And when we’re traveling and on vacation with others, I should find some time to get away and shop or explore so I can regroup. Maybe I’d have some better balance that way – happy time alone and happy time with family, too.

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One comment on “The importance of solitude
  1. stacy says:

    “And traveling with my family as a group – oh my god. Chaos. Anarchy. Like being on a chain gang with batshit insane people whose only aim is to poke you in the eye, literally and figuratively.”

    Now one of my favorite quotes. It cracks me up even more that I’m now reliving the experience with my own kids.

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