When I quit full-time work to become a freelance writer, I revelled in the joy of leaving office life behind. I could work my own hours, wear what I liked, and never again have to deal with congealed kitchen encounters or un-flushed toilet surprises (seriously, why do people do this?).
But after just a few weeks of solitude, I started experiencing peculiar mood swings. By the end of each week, I’d pace about my study room, anxious and a little manic. All this in the midst of enjoying my own company. What was going on?
Wanting to be alone
I like spending time by myself. Ever since I got online in my teens, I enjoyed friendships the most when they’re over text. In my 20’s, I had a face-to-face social life so active that I burnt myself out on human contact. (Yes, it can happen; read Eve’s post on introversion to learn more!) So, in rebounding, I took every opportunity for solitude and never questioned my preference for being alone.
You can see where this is going. And you don’t have to look far to learn what science has to say about it. Loneliness affects our sleep, our stress levels, our understanding of our surroundings; it can trigger changes in our bodies that leave us prone to illness. Funnily enough, being lonely can also make you stay lonely, as you develop self-esteem and perception habits that make it hard to feel comfortable connecting with people.
It was difficult to fathom, and even harder to admit. After all, I talked to people every day over the internet, sometimes sharing the kinds of conversations we had when we still saw each other face to face. I love my solitude and quiet. And most importantly, I didn’t feel lonely.
But – HAHA, GUESS WHAT…
You don’t have to feel lonely to be isolated
According to a 2015 study, published Perspectives on Psychological Science, you can still be socially isolated even if you don’t feel lonely. And the ensuing risk of mortality is up there with alcoholism and smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Especially when it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with technology, and remain constantly tuned into what our friends are doing. To be honest, sometimes I find it overwhelming and actually crave that peaceful isolation.
This, suggests cultural analyst Sherry Turkle, is exactly the problem.
In her TED talk, Turkle explains that all these ‘sips’ of communication, even in the quantities we consume, still don’t add up to a big gulp of real conversation. Our technologically enhanced connectivity is a poor substitute for a real human connection, yet we consistently turn to it out of habit or desire for entertainment and distraction, leaving us isolated even as we continue to stay in touch.
It’s not that we intend to become withdrawn; that’s just a natural byproduct of overdoing the solitude, and falling back on digital products to replace analog contact.
A bit of this, a bit of that
Let’s balance things out a bit, shall we? Solitude isn’t bad. Making an effort to spend time with yourself and enjoy your own company can offer a world of benefits, especially if you’re naturally predisposed to needing lots of time alone.
The internet isn’t bad either. And nor is social media. Where people already suffer from social isolation and loneliness, maintaining contact online can go a long way in reducing the probability of depression, to the point where it’s now deemed healthy for the elderly.
But you know what else isn’t bad? Seeing people. Hanging out. Lessons from Rat Park suggest that not even chemical coercion can defeat genuine social bonds and healthy emotional support. Well, in rats, anyway.
So, if you’re like me and have a penchant for solitude; if you’re generally low on extroversion and default away from social gatherings; if you’re prone to information overload and feed a mild obsession with switching off, remember to take a break from soloing every now and then. And contact someone for real.
I have a part-time job now. Spending two days a week with creative, nerdy people has done wonders for my well-being. It’s a big enough window to have real, healthy human contact. And a small enough portion of my week to give me the right amount of solitude.
This aside, my study room is comfortable. Some days, I still can’t bear to leave it. My books are there; my craft supplies, games, endless access to social media and Slack channels – almost everything I need.
But only almost.
Sandy is a writer and maker from Perth, Western Australia. She keeps busy with homesteading, horticulture, football, martial arts, games, code, tinkering, DIY, fussing the cats, and drinking tea. She blogs long things at sanlive.com and tweets short things at @sandysandy.