People who are single-at-heart love the time they have to themselves. In fact, when thinking about spending time alone, just about all of them react with something like, “Ah, sweet solitude,” and almost none of them react with, “Oh, no, I might be lonely!”
With more and more people living single, and more and more people living alone, a better understanding of solitude is becoming increasingly important. Just recently, The Handbook of Solitude was published. I have a chapter in it, but in this post and the next I want to tell you about one of my favorite chapters, “Experiences of Solitude,” by James Averill and Louise Sundararajan. It is a chapter that acknowledges the potential negative experiences of solitude, such as loneliness and boredom, but has far more to say about what can make solitude so sweet.
In Part 2, I’ll tell you about the 20 different varieties of solitude experiences that they described. Here I want to share some of their other insights and suggestions.
#1 There is a difference between authentic solitude, in which the experience of being alone is mostly positive, and pseudo-solitude, which feels mostly like loneliness. Do you know what it is?
It’s choice: “…authentic solitude is typically based on a decision to be alone; in contrast, pseudo-solitude, in which loneliness predominates, involves a sense of abandonment or unwanted isolation.”
#2 Loneliness is not all negative. It can actually be part of an authentic solitude experience, as, for example, when people drift in and out of different feelings, including feelings of loneliness, when they are alone. Loneliness can also be motivating, as when it pushes people to figure out solutions to their problems. Only when loneliness dominates the experience of being alone and seems insurmountable does the experience get classified as pseudo-solitude.
#3 Do we appreciate solitude more as we grow older? I don’t know of any definitive data on this, but the authors believe that we do, as did Einstein when he said, “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in years of maturity.” Averill and Sundararajan believe that “the sentiment is true of many people of advanced age, who have learned to find solitude delicious but who are reluctant to admit the fact due to cultural prejudices.”
#4 How can we understand how some people come to be good at being alone and others just can’t handle it? Again, I don’t know any great data on that, but the authors point to the 20th century psychoanalyst, Donald Winnocott, who believed that experiences during infancy are important. As the authors explained, “he posited that only those people who as infants were free to explore and independently occupy themselves in the security of their mothers’ presence will as adults have the capacity to be alone.” (Readers, do you have any ideas – or know of any research – on how people come to have the capacity to be alone? I’d love to hear from you if you do. Please share them in the comments section.)
#5 It is possible to experience solitude vicariously – for example, through art or poetry. Certain portrayals of nature can be especially effective.
#6 The kinds of opportunities we now have to experience solitude were largely missing in the past. “For example, in colonial America, young people were expected to establish a household as soon as they had the means to live independently. Within a household privacy was rarely possible, even in bed; and since households served multiple functions (educational, commercial, etc.), they were, in turn, under constant guidance and surveillance by the community.”
I am so grateful to be living in a time when opportunities for solitude are abundant!
Next up: 20 varieties of solitude.
Woman in a window image available from Shutterstock.