It’s assumed that the most distinguishing feature of humans is that we need to belong. We are nothing if not social, and the need to meaningfully participate in a social order is what makes us…….us.
This is probably true, more or less, but there’s more and more reason to think a key to mental health is not so much the need to connect with others, but to unplug from the noisy world around us.
Even if the need to connect is stronger within us most of the time, the ability to unplug is more fragile. The age of cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter have made it all but an impossibility. Never the default.
The New York Times recently wrote a good article about the increasing prevalence of singlehood, particularly among women, and examined the way living alone creates the space necessary to fully develop one’s own interests. I have previously written on the benefits of working in solitude.
A common denominator among research and commentary on solitude is that it’s often the scarce resource for discovering the following qualities about yourself:
- How you best like to work and interact with others
- The nuances in your own tastes and outer edges of your own eccentricities
- Developing an ability to focus on specific tasks for a long time
- Refining your creative and artistic potential
- Self-discipline and behavioral patterns that focus on long-term goals
A common denominator in all the above qualities is immersion. If you’re like me, the default path is to be slightly involved in a large handful of things with a sharp attention to none of them. The end result is a feeling of busyness and activity, entertainment that goes semi-deep, but often feelings of engagement that are fleeting or non-existant.
It’s probably no accident that a lot of great works of art, science, literature, research, etc, were primarily carried out by single people. The blogs I enjoy reading the most are maintained by one person. Brains are often like snowflakes, and deliberate solitude is often the only way to explore the inner workings of your own mind, and thread together your disparate interests into projects that are original and meaningful.
Solitude and Happiness
Most psychology literature focuses on the negative consequences of loneliness, but make little mention of solitude. However, lots of survey data that has come out recently suggests solitude is one of the most sought after lifestyle attributes.
Research performed on childhood development also points to the benefits of meaningful alone time. Reed Larson is a professor who’s conducted a lot of research on emotional development in adolescence, and a common arc throughout his work is that youths that have the right mix of alone/social time tend to develop the strongest sense of self.
None of this contradicts the canon that humans must be social to feel alive, but it does point to a modification of that notion. At least for some of us, social interaction is most meaningful after we’ve had enough alone time to appreciate our need for company.