Why Consistent Isolation Will Not Kill You, Despite What the Research Says

As a home-office-based freelance writer, long periods of solitude spent in deep work comes with the territory. There are times when I will not have a conversation with anyone other than my wife for an entire week.

I’ve adapted to this kind of lifestyle, and I like it. Solitude is not a sad affair for me. I have freely chosen to live a life in which I am alone for long periods of time. I am not lonely, however.

For millions of people, being alone is not a choice, and they feel the pangs of severe loneliness daily, especially those in their elder years who have suddenly been thrust into living by themselves typically after a spouse/partner has passed away, or due to their children growing up and leaving the nest.

The Big Picture on Solitude
Going solo is nothing new in today’s individualistic society. In Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, author Eric Klinenberg explains how there has been a dramatic rise in the number of solo dwellers since thegoing solo mid twentieth century. For instance, more than five million young adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 35 live alone today as compared to only 500,000 in 1950. In Manhattan, more than half of the residencies are one-person dwellings.

Klinenberg refers to the rise of solo-dwellers as a “Singleton Society” that stems from some of the social theories espoused by Emile Durkheim, a nineteenth/early twentieth century thinker who is known as an influential father figure in the world of modern social science. Durkheim came up with “the cult of the individual,” a phrase that “grew out of the transition from traditional rural communities to modern industrial cities, where the individual was gradually becoming the ‘object of a sort of religion,’ more sacred than the group.”

Klinenberg further explains how the cult “made its deepest impressions on modern societies in the West and beyond only in the second half of the twentieth century, when four other sweeping social changes —the rising status of women, the communications revolution, mass urbanization, and the longevity revolution—created conditions in which the individual could flourish.”

Such conditions have extended deeply into the elderly population. Data from a recent report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that:

  • About 29% (13.6 million) of noninstitutionalized older persons live alone (9.3 million women, 4.3 million men).
  • Almost half of older women (46%) age 75+ live alone.

Combine those two data points with the following:

  • Over the past 10 years, the population 65 and over increased from 36.6 million in 2005 to 47.8 million in 2015 (a 30% increase) and is projected to more than double to 98 million in 2060.
  • Between 2005 and 2015 the population age 60 and over increased 34% from 49.8 million to 66.8 million.
  • The 85+ population is projected to triple from 6.3 million in 2015 to 14.6 million in 2040.

So, isolation is not an unusual experience for millions of elderly people, and based on these numbers, it is only going to increase. It can also be said that while the longevity revolution has made great progress in making people more cognizant of how to live healthier lives, it has also brought about an increase in the number of solo seniors who have chronic health issues due to the aging process in general.

According to the National Council on Aging:

  • Approximately 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and 77% have at least two.
  • Diabetes affects 12.2 million Americans aged 60+, or 23% of the older population. An additional 57 million Americans aged 20+ have pre-diabetes, which increases a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
  • 90% of Americans aged 55+ are at risk for hypertension, or high blood pressure. Women are more likely than men to develop hypertension, with half of women aged 60+ and 77% of women aged 75+ having this condition. Hypertension affects 64% of men aged 75+.

What to do about it
It’s important to ask whether living alone, with very limited social interactions, can actually be a positive experience? In short, can solitude bring well-being?

Sara Maitland in How to Be Alone (The School of Life) claims there is bliss in solitude, and she attempts to persuade readers that it is worth pursuing by outlining five categories tohow to be alone prove her point: “1. A deeper consciousness of oneself. 2. A deeper attunement to nature. 3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual). 4. Increased creativity. 5. An increased sense of freedom.” Maitland, by the way, is 67-years-old and living very happily alone in northern Galloway, Scotland.

In Solitude a Return to the Self, Anthony Storr writes how some ofsolitude humanity’s greatest intellectuals were often “more preoccupied with what went on in their own minds than with the welfare of other people,” and that creative types overall discover meaningful insights and discoveries primarily in flashes of brilliance when they are alone [for me it is often in the shower].

solitude 2Philip Koch, in Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter, writes about some famous cheerleaders for solitude, including Franz Kafka, who wrote at his dining room table each night after his parents and sisters went to bed. Kafka is known to have said “one can never be alone enough… there can never be enough silence around one… even night is not night enough.”

Koch adds that in a world full of increasing noise, “the true and balanced place of solitude in a human life is a philosophical question which has, for us, now, urgency.”

The sounds of silence
Speaking of silence and noise, author George Prochnik wrote a wonderful book that explores these two opposites, The Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. His main premise is that we live in a noise-polluted, overly loud world in which pusuit of silencesilence has become a “dwindling” resource for our own inner peace. His search for silence takes him down numerous paths, as he questions “doctors, neuroscientists, acoustical engineers, monks, activists, educators, marketers, and aggrieved citizens.”

In one interesting anecdote of his pursuit, Prochnik garnered the privilege of a guided tour of a chapel at a monastery reserved for monk mediation only, located deep underground. The underground sanctuary is known to be so quiet that it has made some visitors “physically unable to remain in the chapel for even five minutes.” Prochnik, on the other hand, found himself wanting to stay in the profound silence as long as possible. Here, where monks mediate to discover self-knowledge, they wind up with a keener understanding of something beyond themselves that is of “not knowing, of lingering where the mind keeps reaching outward,” Prochnik writes.

And as I write this, lawnmowers and grass trimmers incessantly interrupt my customarily quiet suburban life. During the summer months, these noise polluters are all around me at least twice each week, and every time they come, my work as a writer, in happy solitude, gets rudely interrupted. In this moment, I seek what Prochnik experienced when he visited the underground chapel.

But I don’t advocate being alone in the depths of silence all the time. There are ways to honor solitude, and there are ways to both increase it and minimize it, depending on what’s more important to the individual.

Alone but not lonely
In The Power of Solitude, Mateo Sol and Altheia Luna explain that “aloneness can be power of solitudedescribed as the beautiful feeling of being alone without being lonely. When we are alone, we are in a state of engagement with ourselves wherein our company is more than enough to keep us happy. Unlike loneliness, aloneness helps us to practice introspection and reflection so that we can reconnect with the voice of our souls. Not only that, but aloneness also allows us to appreciate and interact better with our surroundings through the cultivation of mindfulness, awareness, and gratitude.”

What the science says
Despite such positive notions concerning isolation and solo-dwellers, most social science research on this topic paints a much different picture. In an influential, well-written and researched book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, past president of the Association for Psychological Science John T. Cacioppo and Harvard University Press Science Editor William Patrick point to numerous scientific studies that lonelinessshow sound evidence proving that extended periods of social isolation are extraordinarily detrimental to one’s health. Cacioppo and Patrick state that “sixty million people in the U.S. alone feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.” Additionally, they proclaim, with repeated neuroscientific backing, that “loneliness not only alters behavior but shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function. Over time, these changes in physiology are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave.”

Cacioppo and Patrick take their work even further into the dark side of loneliness, declaring with no uncertainty that social isolation is a catalyst for poor health outcomes that accelerate aging comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, and smoking.  They also note that loneliness overall is a highly subjective experience, meaning that you can be working in a crowded office, have strong family connections, or be actively participating in a well-attended conference and still feel quite alone. So, in effect, it’s really all about the quality of your social interactions and not the quantity. This kind of thinking is evident throughout the research on loneliness, making it easy to conclude that not having any meaningful, high quality relationships in your life will ultimately kill you.

Solutions
From a personal perspective, I disagree with all this research pointing to an early demise if you do not have any meaningful interactions with others. While certainly life is much better when you have a loving mate (as I do), for instance, or when you have at least a few reliable and trustworthy friends and/or relatives you can depend on (as I do), I don’t believe these are ultimate requirements for a satisfactory life. I know this because I was pretty much a happy solo-dweller and loner living away from home, from my early twenties up until I was 35, when I met my wife. Moreover, I have always found great peace and solace just plugging along with my work as a writer, alone over long periods of time, undisturbed, deep in thought and production.  Plus, I have always enjoyed just contemplating things in general, in silence, alone. I can do that very happily for days on end in between long hauls of what I consider meaningful and creative work.

I would not be telling the truth, however, if I did not admit there are many times when I need to get out and be social. At such times, I usually attend one of several meet-up groups I belong to, or simply go to a local watering hole (although I don’t drink alcohol) or to a coffee shop, just to be around fellow human beings. Sometimes I will strike up a conversation with a stranger. While these are not very meaningful interactions, they do suffice as a kind of balm to the pangs of being alone too much. Participating in social media also helps, but digital communications can never replace face-to-face interactions.

Referring back to Maitland, a model elderly woman who has figured out how to live in perfect aloneness, I, too, find great serenity in using solitary contemplation for a deeper understanding of myself and spirituality as I age, in going for long walks alone under the beauty of nature, in practicing and enhancing my creativity daily in complete aloneness, and in simply enjoying the freedom that goes with being alone.

Finally, I’d like to conclude by pointing at two interesting words I frequently refer to that embody this confirmation of a solitary life being absolutely fine: “Otium” and “Gerotranscendence.” For more on these, please see one of my previous posts at http://wp.me/p89Xl8-7B.

Thanks for stopping by,

George

One comment

  1. Great article. I am a solitary person by choice but my work is dealing with people. Its an interesting combination and I am able to dip in and out of it by self-scheduling appointments when I choose and for the most part its nice. I do find a lot of folks seem to socialize much more than me at my work. I think a lot has to do with the way you are raised and perhaps some genetic predisposition involvement. For me a lot of socializing is superficial junk food that gives me a feeling like i’m wasting precious time. My problem is maintaining motivation to use time and resources better.

    Liked by 1 person

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