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The American Psyche: Tipping Toward Solitude?

I'm never bored when I'm alone.

I live in the most ordinary American household - I live alone. Knock on any door in the nation and you are more likely to find a household like mine than a household with mom, dad, and the kids, or a household with a married couple and no kids, or a single-parent household, or any other kind.

There has been a surge in the number of single-person households, and a decline in the number of married-with-kids households. This is not a fad - it is a decades-long demographic juggernaut. It has many pundits and prognosticators plenty worried.

One of their fears is that we may be on the cusp of an epidemic of loneliness. Interventions, they say, may be in order. Some even present statistics in support of the link between living alone and feeling lonely. Not bogus statistics but real ones. For example, a recent report about the well-being of older people in the UK noted that 17% of older people living alone say that they are often lonely, compared to only 2% of those living with others.

That's a meaningful difference. I do believe that many older people are isolated, lonely, and depressed (though not as many as our stereotypes would lead us to believe). Their problems should be taken seriously. But let's not make a pathology out of a preference.

Think again about the statistic that 17% of older people living alone report that they often feel lonely. What strikes me about this finding is that 83% of older people living alone do NOT often feel lonely. Remember that they are old, some may have health problems that limit their mobility, others may have close friends and family who have died, and they are living without anyone under the same roof readily available for small talk or interesting excursions. Yet 83% say that they are not often lonely.

When I was writing Singled Out, I read voraciously about demographic patterns (such as the increase in 1-person households) and about loneliness, and thought a lot about my own life. I live alone and I am almost never lonely. I am also rarely bored. Then I realized something that seemed startling at first: During those atypical times when I am bored, I am almost always with other people. I'm never bored when I'm alone.

I don't consider myself an introvert. I love to socialize (with people who do not bore me), I love the visits (time-limited) from friends and family who come to catch up with me and soak up the sun from my deck, and I love to entertain. But I also cherish my solitude.

Introverts and loners: They are not apologizing anymore

Jonathan Rauch does consider himself an introvert. In 2003, he wrote an essay for the Atlantic magazine that began like this:

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is 'too serious,' or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands - and that you aren't caring for him properly.

Rauch, a prolific writer, got more enthusiastic responses to that essay than to anything else he had ever written. Three years later, the Atlantic reported that readers were still clicking their approval: Online, no other piece had drawn more traffic than Rauch's "Caring for Your Introvert."

The same year that Rauch's essay appeared, the witty and wonderful Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto was also published. Loners, notes author Anneli Rufus, are people who prefer to be alone. They are not sad, lonely, or deranged.

Contrary to stereotypes and TV-punditry, loners are not serial murderers and they are not school shooters, either. True, there are criminals who look like loners, in that they spend lots of time alone. Typically, though, they are just pseudo-loners, who never craved all that time to themselves. They wanted to be included but were instead rejected.

True loners do not withdraw in order to stew in misery or plot violent revenge. Instead, Rufus reminds us, loners "know better than anyone how to entertain themselves...They have a knack for imagination, concentration, inner discipline, and invention."

Not all introverts or loners live alone. Their experiences, though, should give pause to those whose thoughts leap to loneliness when imagining the experiences of solo-dwellers, and to those who are tempted to swoop in with their interventions to rescue people who may be perfectly content exactly as they are.

Togetherness can also breed loneliness

The same report that underscored a link between living alone and feeling lonely also implicated divorce in the mix. As one headline put it, "Easy divorce has left elderly lonely and depressed."

The logic is that people who are divorced, and who also feel lonely, are lonely because they are divorced. Probably a good number really are.

The reverse sequence, though, should not be discounted. Some people divorce because they are lonely in their marriages. In the anthology, Women on Divorce, several contributors described such experiences. Ann Hood, for example, said, "I wanted my old pre-marriage back...I remembered how at night I used to sleep well. How being alone felt fine because there was no one down the hall not talking to me." Daphne Merkin added, "I, for instance, married a man who left me feeling lonely not because he wasn't home but because he was."

Preferences for togetherness can change over the course of your life

When I arrived at my first academic job at the age of 26, I considered it my great good fortune to have colleagues who wanted to go out to lunch every day. Now, 28 years later, if I had to go out to lunch every day - even with people I really like - I would go stark raving mad.

Early theorists of aging believed that with age came isolation. Some thought that older people were socially marginalized by a society preoccupied with youth. Others believed that older people wanted to withdraw from society, so they isolated themselves on purpose.

Then along came Laura Carstensen and her colleagues, who actually studied the social interaction preferences of people of different ages. Carstensen found that older people socialize more selectively. They still spend time with the people to whom they feel closest. They don't bother as much, though, with people they do not know so well, or with people who annoy them. That's by choice.

Tipping toward solitude

If there is such a thing as a national psyche, then I think the American version is showing signs of change. Think of trends such as the growing number of people who live alone, the growing preference for working from home, the increasing inclination for families (who have the means to do so) to give their kids rooms of their own, and the preference for older people to live independently as long as possible (instead of moving in with other family members, as they once did). There are many possible reasons for each of these trends, but perhaps at least some of the people in each of the categories have one thing in common: They like their time alone.

In all of our lives, we negotiate a balance between the time we spend with others and the time we spend alone. There are, and always will be, big individual differences. Some love the constant give-and-take of the company of other people, and others prefer more alone time.

Of course, humans are social beings. Meaningful relationships with other people, and time spent with others, will always be important. Still, if there were a national average of the solitude-sociability balance, and if that average were computed over time, I bet it would show that the American scales are tipping toward solitude.


Here are some other posts on solitude:

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