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mental health mondays :: alone time

when i was little, my grandmother frequently used to tell me "don't be a loner". as an only child possessed of a vivid imagination, i was used to spending time by myself and i enjoyed most of it and so i would mock her by saying that i liked being alone. she would warn me that loners were "weird" and no one liked them, but she was never articulate enough to explain to me why that should be so bad and, being a typically precocious late twentieth century child, i would annoy her by pointing out the silliness of her arguments.

of course, my grandmother was right: society as a whole does not like "loners". we automatically perceive a fault in someone who likes their own company. at its very mildest, it's thought of as snobbery- "she thinks she's better than everyone else". at the worst, the loner is a dangerous psychotic, a ticking time bomb because nothing good could come out of wanting to be by oneself so much.

the desire for social interaction is such a given that deprivation from it has been used for centuries as a form of severe punishment. solitary confinement in prison is considered so damaging that there are those who argue it amounts to torture and should never be used. ancient greece, when confronted with a criminal who could not be executed [normally someone of particularly high social standing], opted to banish them, which was considered on par with the death penalty, and not just because shoving someone out into the wilderness to fend for themselves would often be a death sentence.

and, if you do a little internet research on what science has to say, you'll discover that there is research to back up the idea that spending too much time alone is bad for you.

  • this eight-year study of 6,500 subjects indicated that social isolation correlated with an increased chance of dying.
  • a massive meta-study by brigham young university in the united states found the exact same thing: even those who enjoy their "me time" are likely to die younger than their more socially connected peers. 
  • a university of chicago study found that loneliness [not the same as isolation, but often linked] is a physical health hazard, raising the blood pressure at the same rate that healthy eating and exercise decrease it.
  • more university of chicago research raises the possibility that, when isolated, our immune systems become introverted, focusing on fighting bacteria on the inside of the body and neglecting to pay attention to viruses that attack from without.

so, yes, my late grandmother may have been onto something without knowing it. it is actually bad for your health to be a loner.

however, when i was reviewing the literature on this subject, something stood out. no matter what combination of terms i used to search the relative benefits and drawbacks of solitude and sociability, i seemed to end up in the same place: a lot of studies that show that isolation and loneliness are very bad for you, mixed with a handful of feel-good articles about how taking a little time alone can be healthy. i characterize them as "feel-good articles" because of their reassuring tone that we should not feel badly about taking time for ourselves [as if the default position is that we should], but offering absolutely no quantitative results to show that it could be beneficial. here's an example of such an article. here's another. there are lots more like them and they make very reasonable-sounding points. but it made me wonder, why wasn't there any science?

the studies above tend to focus on people who are very isolated, or who felt extremely isolated and longed not to be. but there is a paucity of information on what amount of time alone should be considered healthy. [the only study i found that even tangentially addressed the issue was done on adolescents and determined that a certain amount of time alone, even if it was imposed rather than chosen, was helpful.] the scientific information that we have indicates that being isolated is bad. fine. if i sit down and eat a half a kilo of dark chocolate, that would be bad as well. but there's also research that says i would be better off eating a small amount of dark chocolate than i would be having no dark chocolate at all. that's what's missing here.

it could be that such research would prove that even short periods of being alone had unhealthy side effects. [deprived of sensory input, our brains start going batshit within minutes as we try to fill in the blank slate that we're incapable of processing.] but in this case, no one's even asking the questions: can too much interaction with others have adverse effects? is there a point beyond which social interaction starts to be detrimental? can a lack of time spent alone actually be damaging? we're very eager to know whether there are good reasons to avoid becoming a "loner", but it seems like we're a little timid to know that there might be good reasons to spend some time alone.

truthfully, the idea that we should expect to spend some time alone is a fairly recent one: medieval homes were usually structured around one big, open room where everyone lived and slept. when the lord and lady of the manor wanted to get busy, they would do so in a bedroom they shared with all their household servants. from birth to death, a person could expect to be surrounded by others, and being alone was unsafe. there were those who lived in solitude for religious reasons, but this was perceived as both an extreme and a sacrifice, not a choice made out of the desire for some "me time". so it shouldn't be all that surprising that the idea still seems a little odd. but that it's still so stigmatized that no one even wants to investigate it seems to come close to a full-on phobia. [even the romanticized idea of the loner- a frontier cowboy, an artist, a passionate leader- carries the taint of the tragic.]

i envisioned today's post being a discussion, informed by scientific research, of how to achieve a healthy balance of social and private time. i was surprised to find out how difficult that was. i'm also a little miffed because, while i found out that i can be very social once i'm around people with whom i share interests, i still do feel the need to have my own space. i'd like to think that's not going to kill me. research suggests that i have reason to be worried, but the questions researchers are asking are pretty slanted.

it's like my grandmother is controlling the world of psychological research from beyond the grave.

i hope for all our sakes that's not true. but until we have more information, it seems like you might want to make a point of seeing your friends and family more often, unless you want to die.

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