Why Having People Around May Not Be a Good Thing
Nikola Tesla, who lived between the years 1856 and 1943, was a Serbian-American inventor, engineer, and futurist who never married. He explained that living without a partner was very helpful to his scientific abilities:
"The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born."
Many dread loneliness. Research suggests that people who have these fears are more afraid of the unknown and are more likely to act as is if the worst is going to happen. For example, a PEW report from 2009 showed a sizable gap between 18- to 64-year-olds’ expectations of old age and the actual experiences reported by elders. Approximately 29 percent of young people expected to to be lonely in old age, while just 17 percent of the older generation actually experienced loneliness.
This finding is important since it sheds light on why people get married. It is quite cynical to use another person to assuage our fears—but nevertheless, many people do so. It may be, in fact, a major reason people decide to marry, according to research.
A research team from the University of Toronto conducted seven comprehensive and complementary studies, published in the Journal of Personality, to examine how loneliness affects the incentive to marry. Their findings show that 40 percent of respondents fear not having a long-term companion and another 11 percent fear growing old alone. This fear, their studies show, leads respondents to marry and settle for partners who are lower-quality on one or more levels (e.g. emotional support, intellectual compatibility, or physical appearance).
The Merits of Solitude
In interviewing some of the younger singles for my book, I heard time and time again about the “fear of being lonely when I’m old.” It seemed that it was hard for some of the young people I interviewed to imagine living happily ever after as singles. It takes time, intention, and effort to make this shift. But after asking older singles, I discovered that instead of feeling lonely and out of contact, many of them simply enjoyed their solitude.
As Lao Tzu once said, "Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe."
There is some evidence for this in another context. In their study of more than 2,300 undergraduates at 24 institutions, Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of college students demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills during their first two years of college. They argue that, among other factors, socializing and being surrounded constantly by people distracted them and hurt their studies.
Turning Loneliness into Solitude
Turning loneliness into something that is beneficial is not easy. David Goff, who often writes about his struggle with loneliness, neatly summarizes the answer I found in my research. He writes:
"I learned to love myself. That would not have happened so clearly for me if I hadn’t been alone. Loneliness became solitude because no one else was around to distract me. I sat in my own juices until I started to feel some compassion for what I was doing.
The loneliness turned, it became something else, something friendlier and more supportive because I had to face myself. I not only came to terms with me, but I [also] began to hold my life as [an] on-going miracle. Solitude began when I realized that I, despite my fear and distaste, was always present. Solitude became something I hadn’t expected."
Goff’s reflections truly described the findings of my own research and the information I gained from interviewing many singles.
Many people feel complete by themselves, and this trend is increasing globally. Is it tough sometimes? Yes, of course. But it is also something that should be learned, experienced, and understood. Does it fit everyone? Probably not, simply because we all have different strategies and methods by which we tackle life.
But reality and research show us that many prefer the solo way of living—and their numbers are growing. It is possible to achieve a high level of well-being by developing the ability to enjoy “me time.” Often, this results in feelings of empowerment, relaxation, and self-knowledge—not loneliness.