Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing number of academic reports and news features about the dangers – to adults of all ages but especially elders – of loneliness. The problem is repeatedly called an “epidemic.”
Loneliness can cut seven-and-a-half years off your life, they say. It has the same risk to life as diabetes or obesity, say others. Social connections are necessary, they tell us, for cognitive function and a well-regulated immune system.
Last time we discussed loneliness here, in early February, comments revealed that TGB readers almost universally make the important distinction between being lonely and spending time alone, understanding that they are not the same thing.
Nevertheless, this is rarely addressed in the media coverage of the so-called “loneliness epidemic.” Pretty much all fail to acknowledge that alone time is as important to well-being as social time, and the amount of solitude that a given person needs or desires varies widely among us.
Finally, last month, a well-done story at BBC.com took on a discussion of the benefits associated with reclusiveness:
”One key benefit is improved creativity. Gregory Feist, who focuses on the psychology of creativity at California’s San Jose State University, has defined creativity as thinking or activity with two key elements: originality and usefulness...
“Feist’s research on both artists and scientists shows that one of the most prominent features of creative folks is their lesser interest in socialising.”
Susan Cain, founder of Quiet Revolution, a company that promotes quiet and introvert-friendly workplaces tells us that
”...humans are such porous, social beings that when we surround ourselves with others, we automatically take in their opinions and aesthetics. To truly chart our own path or vision, we have to be willing to sequester ourselves, at least for some period of time.”
And unlike those dire predictions of early death to people who are lonely, another study finds that both our mental and physical health may partially depend on spending time without the distractions of having other people around:
”Daydreaming in the absence of such distractions activates the brain’s default-mode network. Among other functions, this network helps to consolidate memory and understand others’ emotions.
“Giving free rein to a wandering mind not only helps with focus in the long term but strengthens your sense of both yourself and others.”
“Strengthens your sense of yourself...”
More than many people I have known, I have always needed extended periods of unstructured time alone. One of the results of my solitude is that I know intimately how my body functions. I am acutely aware of when something is not right and I generally know when it needs attention or can be ignored.
I am convinced that the accumulation of that bodily knowledge over many decades is what gave me the impetus to badger my physician about my too many symptoms that, although mostly minor individually, added up to something more serious.
It took the medical people four months or so to find the pancreatic cancer, but I might not have pushed them as hard if I didn't have such a thorough knowledge of how my body works and I wouldn't have that knowledge without my quiet time.
So maybe, without my solitude, the cancer would not have been found in time for the surgery to be possible. I can't prove that but I pretty much believe it.
Still, I doubt Feist was thinking of cancer diagnoses when he said,
”'...there’s a real danger with people who are never alone.' It’s hard to be introspective, self-aware, and fully relaxed unless you have occasional solitude.”
The BBC.com story, written by Christine Ro, is a good antidote to the media scare-mongering that passes for settled social science on the subject of loneliness.
Of course, there are lonely people who may need help combating it but that should not be confused with the human need for quiet too, and that there is no "right" amount of solitude. Balance and an allowance for individuality is what is called for.