Aloneness is central to our collective wellbeing

Is spending time alone an escape from reality or a gateway to more effective social action? A walk can be transformative when no one is babbling in your ear.

Dionne Lew
17 January 2014

Original artwork by Dionne Lew. All rights reserved.

If you want to be more deeply connected, spend time alone.

That’s not a fact, underpinned by research. It’s a reflection. An anecdote. But it may have value.

If you came to me and said — I feel empty, or — as if something is missing — if you complained about feeling blocked or stagnant or that negative drama (gossip, shouting, pointing the finger) made you feel more alive — I would say: think about spending some more time alone.

That’s regardless of if you’re an extravert, introvert, or even ambivert (think happy middle ground).

These are just personality types.

The rewards of time alone apply across categories. Aloneness is a deliberate practice of not seeking someone (or something) ‘other’ to fill you up. I believe it’s a deep human need, as vital as connection.

A walk can be transformative when no one’s babbling in your ear, either because they’re beside you, or in your headphones (so you can go inwards, and down towards emotion).

Sometimes silence has to accompany solitude, but not always. Music can help. It appears to take you in the same direction as aloneness. I don’t know why. (If you do, please leave a note.)

Being alone can mean sitting on the couch, but with the TV and laptop, tablet and smartphone off. You can read (some kinds of) books. I’m not sure what makes one type of input a distraction from connection, as opposed to a support. But there it is. Focus? Intention? “Does this take me in the same direction as music?That might be a way to decide.

There was a huge response in 2013 to Susan Cain’s book on Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. I have yet to read it, I confess, but I liked her manifesto and read much commentary that followed its release.

It seemed to me that there was a collective sigh of relief that someone had at last articulated what many wished they could say in response to demands for yet more teamwork, group projects, planned activities and holiday ideas: leave me alone. Others were quick to point out the substantial research that exists on the benefit of collaboration when it comes to creativity or generating ideas.

Sides were taken, as if it were a competition, with a right answer, that could be won.

I found the reaction fascinating because - let’s face it - even with a bit of quiet thrown in, most of our time is spent with others, or being distracted.

Mostly we are:

· Not silent
· Not meditating
· Not on solitary walks
· Not by ourselves in an office
· Not staring out the window
· Not alone.

But this debate really stirred things up. Everyone wanted to know what the truth was. What the research showed. Facts. What made people more creative? Alone, or not alone? What was the best way to generate new, exciting, interesting ideas? Alone, or in groups?

These are all important questions, but this is not what aloneness is about, or at least, not the kind of aloneness I am referring to.

Aloneness is not a transaction –“I’ll give up time with others in exchange for being more creative;” or give up some of my aloneness to seek out people in exchange for generating more ideas. It’s much deeper than that.

I’m talking about being alone for the sake of it. Not even to see where it leads you, if it leads you anywhere. Aloneness is important because it’s needed, like other hard-to-define qualities such as meaning and love whose deficiency is difficult to quantify or even detect but which has a profound impact on our wellbeing.

So why do we find the prospect of aloneness frightening?

I don’t know.

I have, however, noticed that when you’re alone for long enough, sooner or later you tend to appreciate what is going on in your life more deeply, what you are feeling about it. And I mean what you are really feeling, rather than the official version. And that can be good or bad.

Don’t ask me why emotions tend to present as high notes, then move to disquiet (“I’ve got to get out, eat something, have another drink”) and - if we manage to resist interruption - to whatever lies underneath.

Is what’s underneath important? I think it drives a lot of our behavior, but we do a lot to avoid this recognition. If we do not guard our downtime zealously, others won’t hesitate to commandeer it in order to avoid their own.

Chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter. Do, do, do. It’s so exhausting.

By contrast, being alone guides us towards the ‘underneathness’ of what is going on. And it doesn’t even have to be about understanding the hinterland of unconsciousness, or what little we know of consciousness, once we are there.

Try spending more time alone. Your wellbeing depends on it, and so does mine.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData