It was Thoreau who first suggested it to me, the idea that we aren’t lonely because we are alone; we are lonely because we have failed in our solitude. Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (2014)
The capacity to be alone–properly alone–is one of life’s subtlest skills. Real solitude is a contented and productive state that garners tangible rewards: it allows us to reflect and recharge, improving our relationships with ourselves and, paradoxically, with others. Today, the zeitgeist embraces sharing like never before. Fueled by our dependence on online and social media, we have created an ecosystem of obsessive distraction that dangerously undervalues solitude. Many of us now lead lives of strangely crowded loneliness–we are ever-connected, but only shallowly so.
In an interview with Wency Leung, Globe and Mail, Harris elaborates on the concept of loneliness being “failed solitude”:
…Solitude is a state of productive and contented time alone, whereas loneliness is an anxious emotion that derives from the suspicion that you’re supposed to be somewhere else or you’re supposed to be in the company of others.
We often encounter loneliness first, as kind of an instinctual reaction, and if we move through loneliness, we arrive at solitude on the other side.
As Harris stated in an April issue of Time, however, “A 2014 study found that many of us would rather give ourselves electric shocks than spend 15 minutes alone with our thoughts. Hanging out with yourself, while it may sound torturous to many, has become a radical act.”
Below Harris offers (Time) “Five Ways Being Alone Will Improve Your Life.” Click on the magazine link for additional details.
- Politics. Getting our news on social media doesn’t necessarily lend itself to increasing our understanding. “We all need time away from the red-faced online crowds if we want to consider the things they’re shouting. The radical thinkers of tomorrow will be people who know how to remove themselves from toxic pools of public discourse; they’ll be people who have mastered the art of moving back and forth, between crowd and solitude.”
- Daydreaming. “Studies show that, when the mind wanders, our brains activate what’s called a ‘default mode network.’ An intense series of brain functions go to work, despite the ‘blankness’ that the brain projects to us…While institutions continue to place an emphasis on concentration and collaboration, it’s worth asking why so many of our greatest artists and scientists make a habit of solitary walks in the woods or through city parks…”
- Culture Consumption. Instead of going with the mainstream film, book, and song suggestions that everyone else goes for, do we really know what we actually prefer? “We owe it to ourselves to step away from these crowd-fueled suggestions and foster our inner weirdos instead. What do you really like? There are stranger things waiting to be loved.”
- Wayfinding. Now using such tools as GPS and Google Maps, we tend not to get lost anymore. But “feeling wholly alone in an unforgiving landscape, might be better for us than we think.” It’s a skill that can be helpful. “Try taking a drive in a strange town without your phone. Try walking into the woods alone. When we get lost, we have a chance to find ourselves.”
- Relationships. “We cannot desire that which we already possess. Three-dimensional love must include periods of separation: as Rilke noted, ‘the highest task for a bond between two people [is] that each protects the solitude of the other’…Walking away from our phones, resisting the urge to Facebook-stalk our boyfriends and girlfriends, composing a single love letter instead of a hundred inconsequential texts, will shake up a relationship more than any ‘disruptive’ technology.”