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What We Need Now: 3 Types of Cocooning

Even before coronavirus quarantines, hyper-nesting had been on the rise.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, more and more people are spending a whole lot of time at home. Some have been advised to do so, and others have taken the initiative to self-quarantine. Because isolation times often last 14 days or even longer, the experience can become tiresome, frustrating, stressful, boring, and even infuriating. But it doesn’t have to be.

In a way, Americans—or at least some of them—have never been better prepared, psychologically, for spending a lot of time alone at home. Increasingly, they have already been doing so, often by choice.

We Are More Often Living Alone, Spending Time Alone, and Valuing Our Time Alone

It is not necessary to live alone in order to spend time alone at home, but it helps. The number of people living alone in the U.S. has increased dramatically.

  • In 1960, about 7 million Americans lived alone.
  • By 1970, it was almost 11 million.
  • In 1980, 18 million;
  • 23 million by 1990;
  • Nearly 27 million by 2000;
  • 31 million by 2010;
  • And an impressive 36.5 million by 2019.

The 36.5 million amounts to about 28 percent of all households.

Americans in general, and not just those living alone, have been spending more time alone. A study of the use of time in the opening years of the 21st century found that adults in the U.S. were spending much more time at home in 2012 than they were in 2003. (The authors said the increase amounted to an additional eight days spent at home. Their charts indicate a clear increase, but I can’t verify that it was eight days.)

Despite all the scaremongering about loneliness, many people love having time for themselves. The Pew Research Center documented that in a survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults. Asked how important it was to have time completely alone, away from everyone else, more than half, 55 percent, chose the most enthusiastic response made available to them—they said it was “very important.” Another 30 percent chose the second-most positive response, saying that it was “somewhat important.” That’s a total of 85 percent saying that having time to be completely alone mattered to them.

Of course, choosing to spend time alone, on your own terms, can be a whole different experience than feeling forced or obligated to isolate yourself for an extended period of time. Those who have been leading the way in choosing to spend time alone offer some useful suggestions to everyone else about how to savor your solitude, even when it goes on longer than you might like.

Hyper-nesting: 3 Types of Cocooning

Faith Popcorn, who makes her living predicting future trends, noticed a new trend that she called “cocooning” as far back as 1981. “More people were staying in, surrounding themselves with creature comforts, and shunning public spaces,” said Jacqueline Kantor in “How our solo homes became cocoons,” where she reminded us of Popcorn’s work.

By 1991, Popcorn identified three kinds of cocooning. The first is not particularly helpful to people trying to find ways of coping with too much time to themselves. “Armored cocooning” is what people do when they live in gated communities with a lot of security. If you don’t already live in such a community, you are probably not going to move to one just because of a quarantine. And people in those communities have not led the way in demonstrating ways of embracing your solitude once you get behind your gates.

The second version of cocooning is more imaginative. “Wandering cocooning” is what people do when they step inside their vehicles, all by themselves, and drive. People under quarantine are advised to “avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.” Driving solo seems to be fine.

Of course, the quarantined are also told to stay away from “work, school, or public areas.” Still, the experience of just driving on your own, especially on open roads that can be navigated mindlessly, can be liberating and dreamy. Who needs a destination? Or find a place to stop with a good view and no one else around. It can be a way of avoiding the stir-craziness of staying inside for days or even weeks on end without putting anyone else at risk. And if you can wander on foot or on a bicycle instead, far enough away from other humans, the environment will thank you.

The third version of cocooning is the most familiar one, the one we practice in our own homes. Popcorn called it “socialized cocooning.”

When she coined the term, the socializing part happened in person. It applied to people who created their own private sphere while living with others, as well as to people living alone who invited others into their homes when they wanted them there. Now, in the new dynamics Jacqueline Kantor was describing, people who live alone more often keep their physical space all to themselves and connect with others virtually.

Curating Your Cocoon

If you have been reading how-to articles about preparing for an actual or potential quarantine, you already know the boring stuff. Stock up on food, toiletries, and other basics. Add to your Netflix list—it’s no longer just a guilty pleasure; it is constructive coping.

Just stocking up on toilet paper, though, is for newbies. The solo dwellers who cherish having a home of their own have long been doing more than that. They cultivate and curate their places, turning them into comfortable cocoons that bring them “peace and protection, coziness and control.”

They start with the room they care about the most. If it is the bedroom, they might, if they can afford it, indulge in luxury sheets and bedding. Cocooners also like to fill their favorite spaces with great aesthetics, such as artwork they adore or objects of their affection. I used to have an Oscar the Grouch puppet who always had a place of prominence in my home (until it was lost in a move) because it was given to me by an aunt who was special to me all the years of her life.

If cooking is your thing (a wonderful passion to have, if you are stuck inside), then an investment in the latest gadgets or quality ingredients may be well worth it. Gadgets that aren’t just gimmicks are particularly helpful to shut-ins because they can provide renewable pleasure when they are used over and over again, in a unique way each time. With gadgets, you are doing something, not just looking at something.

People who are single at heart and have homes of their own can be very inventive with their space. They are not boxed in by the usual rules and norms about what goes where. My desk, for example, is in the middle of my living room. That’s not because I have nowhere else to put it, but because that’s the biggest, brightest, most open space in my home, and I love it. Other people spread out their projects in every space in their place; there’s no one else around telling them not to.

Curating Your Time

Faith Popcorn nailed it with another trend she predicted nearly a decade ago—the rise of the solo citizen. In the U.S. and many other nations around the world, more people are living single for more years of their lives, and sometimes for their entire lives.

Single people are not just good at cultivating their spaces; they are also good at curating their time. During holidays, people who are not single sometimes have a bad habit of pitying people who are. That condescension is often misplaced.

Single people sometimes turn down invitations to spend holidays with other people, because they are so looking forward to what they have planned for themselves. They have piles of books they’ve been wanting to read, projects they have been dying to get to, experiences they have been pining for. Getting quarantined does limit the possibilities, but single people get good at using their time alone constructively and joyfully. You should, too.

Cocooning Is a State of Mind

Psychology is a mind game, and so is your life. You can transform your time alone by altering your mindset. You are not “stuck” home for days on end. You have a unique opportunity to do all those homey things you’ve been wanting to do all your life. That includes taking some time to do nothing at all.

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