Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. So how do we reverse it?
Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. In the space of just one generation, we've closed ourselves off and now spend more time in front of screens — on average, 10 hours a day according to a Neilsen report — than we do with our loved ones. Author and journalist and author Johann Hari explains that this isn't at all how the human species is supposed to behave. He suggests more actual face time with people, more community, and above all: becoming the social creatures that we have been for millennia. Johann's new book is the fascinating Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
Boredom has benefits. New research finds that device-free solitude deactivates high arousal emotions while reducing stress and promoting relaxation.
If you want to know the state of a nation, we generally look no further than online. A proper portrait, that does not yield. Look, instead, at the line in front of you, waiting for a cappuccino or to pay for groceries. Look into the cars surrounding you at a red light. Look around anywhere in the public space, except at your phone. Then you’ll get a sense of where our heads are at.
Our heads are down, perpetually angled at the screen, whenever a moment of potential boredom arises. Waiting for a meal? Barista taking too long? Or even the proper amount of time—those 30 seconds are crushingly dull. Caffeine is a secondary stimulation, a little jolt to turn your attention so that it can immediately be pulled into the innumerable waves of inattention on Instagram.
Where did boredom go? What happens when we stop allowing ourselves the habit of staring into space, letting our minds wander? Instead of a deluge of constant information, can we, as Michael Harris writes in The End of Absence, “engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume?”
Research recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that might be a good thing. According to lead researcher Thuy-vy Nguyen at the University of Rochester, 15 minutes of device-free solitude deactivates high arousal emotions while reducing stress and promoting relaxation. Boredom has benefits.
Maybe solitude just needs rebranding. As the research team writes, it is often related to social rejection, withdrawal, and isolation, with being shy and lonely. Why suffer any of these fates when a friend can beckon you from your pocket? Yet, ironically, being virtually connected triggers many of these very conditions. We never feel so lonely as when engulfed by our virtual friends.
To set the stage in the four studies included in this research, the team writes:
We operationalized solitude as an experience of being alone without any communication with others, without any other activities, and without other types of active stimuli present. We then examined how having other people present, doing activities such as reading, or thinking particular kinds of thoughts might affect people’s experiences of being alone.
The four experiments: comparing solitude with social interactions; comparing solitude with being alone during an activity, like reading; comparing solitude with being alone thinking certain types of thoughts; understanding how daily solitude impacts affective experiences by utilizing diary data.
In the first study 75 students sat by themselves in a comfortable chair, while the control group of 39 students talked to a research assistant. Each group was handed a questionnaire before and after the session. Solitary individuals showed a “deactivation effect.” Both positive and negative emotions were reduced. Follow-up experiments showed similar deactivation results:
It seems solitude doesn’t have a simple emotional effect that can be caricatured as good or bad; rather, it changes the intensity of our inner experience, both positive and negative: accentuating low-key emotions, while dialing down our stronger feelings.
The same occurred with the groups that were asked to jot down evening diary entries for two weeks. Those writing after a device-free 15 minutes showed a reduction in positive and negative emotions.
Is this necessarily a good thing? Not if you think reducing positive emotions is beneficial. Yet it would be interesting to know the levels of contentment that followed these boredom sessions. Did the calmness and reduced stress make the students more at ease? Is feeling content in the moment better than being joyous? It is an arguable point, considering the superfluous nature of emotions and the stability of a disciplined contentment.
The real value here appears to be affective control. Instead of being carried away by emotional responses—something the Internet, at times, seems designed for—the students who spent time alone were better able to decide how to respond to stimulation. As the team writes:
The set of studies thus suggested that people can use solitude, or other variations on being alone, to regulate their affective states, becoming quiet after excitement, calm after an angry episode, or centered and peaceful when desired.
We all need breaks from arousal, not only when sleeping. Being constantly stimulated keeps us on edge throughout our day and even affects our unconscious hours. Allowing breaks for boredom, for being alone with our thoughts, is a helpful ally to combat life’s stresses. Regulation is worth the price of deactivation. It is then we see transience clearly, better equipped to deal with the rigors of our inner terrain. In the words of the researchers:
It is clear that solitude can play a role in the self-regulation of affective experiences, and it also appears to be the case that having positive thoughts and making choices or being volitional in solitude can enhance people’s positive experiences.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Time on your own means time to tell the difference between right and wrong.
In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe described the ‘mad energy’ of an ageing man who roved the streets of London from dusk till dawn. His excruciating despair could be temporarily relieved only by immersing himself in a tumultuous throng of city-dwellers. ‘He refuses to be alone,’ Poe wrote. He ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime … He is the man of the crowd.’
Like many poets and philosophers through the ages, Poe stressed the significance of solitude. It was ‘such a great misfortune’, he thought, to lose the capacity to be alone with oneself, to get caught up in the crowd, to surrender one’s singularity to mind-numbing conformity. Two decades later, the idea of solitude captured Ralph Waldo Emerson’s imagination in a slightly different way: quoting Pythagoras, he wrote: ‘In the morning, – solitude; … that nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company.’ Emerson encouraged the wisest teachers to press upon their pupils the importance of ‘periods and habits of solitude’, habits that made ‘serious and abstracted thought’ possible.
In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the polis. For her, freedom was tethered to both the private sphere – the vita contemplativa – and the public, political sphere – the vita activa. She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think.
In 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust. How could anyone, she wanted to know, perpetrate such evil? Surely only a wicked sociopath could participate in the Shoah. But Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder.
Just as Poe suspected that something sinister lurked deep within the man of the crowd, Arendt recognised that: ‘A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.
‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong,’ Arendt wrote, ‘because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even another murderer.’ It is not that unthinking men are monsters, that the sad sleepwalkers of the world would sooner commit murder than face themselves in solitude. What Eichmann showed Arendt was that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’.
But what if, we might ask, we become lonely in our solitude? Isn’t there some danger that we will become isolated individuals, cut off from the pleasures of friendship? Philosophers have long made a careful, and important, distinction between solitude and loneliness. In The Republic (c380 BCE), Plato proffered a parable in which Socrates celebrates the solitary philosopher. In the allegory of the cave, the philosopher escapes from the darkness of an underground den – and from the company of other humans – into the sunlight of contemplative thought. Alone but not lonely, the philosopher becomes attuned to her inner self and the world. In solitude, the soundless dialogue ‘which the soul holds with herself’ finally becomes audible.
Echoing Plato, Arendt observed: ‘Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it. In solitude, Arendt never longed for companionship or craved camaraderie because she was never truly alone. Her inner self was a friend with whom she could carry on a conversation, that silent voice who posed the vital Socratic question: ‘What do you mean when you say …?’ The self, Arendt declared, ‘is the only one from whom you can never get away – except by ceasing to think.’
Arendt’s warning is well worth remembering in our own time. In our hyper-connected world, a world in which we can communicate constantly and instantly over the internet, we rarely remember to carve out spaces for solitary contemplation. We check our email hundreds of times per day; we shoot off thousands of text messages per month; we obsessively thumb through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, aching to connect at all hours with close and casual acquaintances alike. We search for friends of friends, ex-lovers, people we barely know, people we have no business knowing. We crave constant companionship.
But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
We're more lonely than ever and this is horrible. Equally horrible? We can't bare to spend time alone.
‘All man’s miseries,’ wrote the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, ‘derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone’. Often in our busy lives this is caused by having too much to do. Sometimes it is our own inability to set down the smartphone and sit. Our go, go, go lives often leave us with little time for solitude. This is a shame, as many great minds argue, for being able to be alone with your own thoughts is a great skill that more people could use.
However, there is a difference between solitude and isolation, and it might kill you.
Some of us, particularly the more intelligent of us, enjoy a quiet moment to ourselves every now and again. But others are truly lonely. This is more than just a negative feeling - it can have horrible effects on your health. Effects that we have a greater reason than ever for trying to understand.
Research suggests that loneliness can dramatically increase the risk of death in individuals. It can even be a better predictor of early death than obesity. In a meta study of more than 200 studies covering hundreds of thousands of patients it was shown that “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” according to lead researcher Holt-Lunstad.
It is also known that chronic loneliness can cause a slew of specific health problems. John Cacioppo reports that it can even lead to “…increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs… [and] the danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells; this can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections.”
This news would not shock Aristotle, who argued two thousand years ago that friendship was a requirement for a good life. Lacking friends, he posited, we would be unable to truly enjoy being human. The notion that we are biologically dependent on having some level of social interaction would only mean to him that we have an even greater obligation to educate individuals on how to make and be friends.
He was on to something. Today, more than 40 million adults over 45 in the United States are believed to suffer from chronic loneliness. That image that you have of the sad old man in the nursing home is only partly true, however, as this statistic is also tied to other demographic changes. Such as a reduction in the marriage rate and the number of children per married couple. Though it is also true that older people can be at a higher risk of loneliness, 1 in 2 people over the age of 85 in the United States live alone. This is an especially grim note, as this link explains, because the time they can expect to have left is remarkably short.
However, at the same time, people complain of a lack of time to themselves, and studies show that people are happiest when they are able to buy more time rather than things. Hannah Arendt even alleged the inability to sit alone and think was a key reason Eichmann became a tool in the Holocaust. For her, the ability to sit and think by yourself, a key part of solitude, was a tool towards freedom. Without it, the tyranny of the majority, or even outright totalitarianism, would follow. The ability to be alone is the key to individuality, for Arendt.
But one man went farther, suggesting that loneliness was good for us.
Schopenhauer, the ever-depressive philosopher, made the argument that the best of us would actually choose isolation. Deeming such people “Sages”, these people would be monastic; retreating from society, desire, and distraction to live simple lives. These rare few, so he alleged, were the truly happy people. Freed from vanity and pettiness they could go on to find intellectual pleasures, though even Schopenhauer was unable to make the switch to such a life.
It is an odd paradox - we suffer both from loneliness and the inability to have time to ourselves. Technology has made us more connected than ever, and this has not made us happier or even less lonely. We are going to have to learn not only to re-connect, but to be alone as well. A paradox befitting of the modern, ultra-connected, age.