Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just Between Us, We Each Need to be Alone -- PART 2

Riddle me this: Have you ever made an important decision, or solved a difficult personal or professional problem, when you were not alone? Certain decisions, of course, are made collegially – on the eve of my tenth anniversary with The Memsahib, I’m thinking of marital decisions – but the decision to get married?

In Part 1, I regretted (more curmudgeonly than I had hoped to appear) the oversocialization of society – wow, there’s an oxymoron. Let’s make it “the oversocialization of members of society.” I regret it most keenly among the generation addicted to email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies that they cannot leave alone, and which, in turn, cannot leave them alone.

It turns out that some recent studies have identified several material advantages to people of all ages – but particularly young people – to spending time alone. They’re summarized in this article ("The Power of Lonely") from the Boston Globe.   Here’s an excerpt:

"But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone."

Some of the specific results:

"One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school."

My own experience is that I don’t have any notable insights, and solve very few problems, when I’m not alone. Solitude is the time for synthesizing the massive data inputs we all experience, the time for puzzling things out. Some years ago, I stumbled on a problem-solving technique which I later discovered was very close to Zen, and which a former boss of mine called my “zero-based thinking.” Whenever I had a difficult problem that seemed to have no solution, whether personal or professional, I’d examine every assumption, including the assumption that the problem was a problem to begin with. This is solitary work. Maybe not sitting on a rural bluff and staring into space, but paying attention only to one’s own thoughts – not considering the impression one is making on another, not processing one’s impressions of another, not formulating expected responses to what one is hearing or reading or seeing. Just plain old thinking. Here’s the thing – it’s fun. And you can’t do it while you’re social networking.

There’s a skill to being alone. It must be cultivated. Witness the young man or woman who discovers to her horror that she has some time on her hands. What does she do? Chances are slim that she’ll pick up a serious book or take a walk or even doze and dream. (Blogging only half-counts – it involves organized thinking (good) but it’s not private and anarchic (bad, at least for realizing the benefits of solitude).) More likely, she’ll pull out her iPhone and make a call, check Facebook, tweet a chirpy tweet. She equates aloneness with loneliness and fears it, and so obsessively socializes. (Example could have as easily have been male.) No easy fix; just do it. For young ‘uns, parents can enforce social-networking-free times and zones. Assign some reading. Require the lad or lass to keep a (non-online) diary, with assurances of privacy – you can call it an analog blog, if that will help.

An anablog, if you will.

I understand that not everyone can find time to be alone. Families exist for a reason. Children need their mothers and fathers, and vice versa; husbands and wives need one another. Employers demand that everyone work in teams. So it’s a struggle for many to find that special time to communicate solely with what’s in one’s head.

Do it anyway.

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