Loneliness vs. Solitude

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Recently I received a thoughtful, respectful message from a former student (who is now at university). He was curious to know how someone like me–warm, caring, intelligent–would be without a partner, or seem to be without one, at any rate. He understood if I chose not to answer the question. I think I understood why he would ask. For one thing, young people (and older people too) wish to understand the world better, and asking questions is one of the best ways. Also, there are cultural differences at work. Moreover, it’s a question I could stand to ask myself.

I replied that my answer was not going to be anywhere close to complete, but that there were a few things I could say briefly. One was that being single is much more common in the U.S. than here in Hungary. (The difference is marked, actually.) Another was that I truly enjoy being alone–not all the time, but for substantial stretches and for certain things that I do, such as writing, biking, thinking. The third part was that the situation could change, that I was open to the possibility of meeting someone, here or elsewhere, with whom I would want to build a relationship.

All of that leaves a lot unanswered, but it’s also true. How the situation took shape–that’s a much more difficult question. If I were to do it all over, I probably would marry and have kids, and they would be grown up by now, or at least well into their teenage years. But we don’t get to do our lives over; we can only live them from the present onward, or rather, in the continual present, with memories and anticipations, but no choices except for the ones right before us, including choices of attitude.

Back to the point about enjoying being alone. Right now I want to look briefly at the difference between loneliness and solitude. I wrote about this in my first book, Republic of Noise. The distinction isn’t absolute or clear-cut; the two can overlap. Nor does either of these have to do entirely with the presence or absence of others. You can be lonely–or solitary–when someone is right beside you. So what are they, and how do they differ?

Loneliness is a felt lack of human company. It can come upon you when you are all by yourself, or when you are around others with whom you do not feel at ease, or when you are enjoying the company of others but missing a particular person, or even when there’s no one in particular you are missing, but you feel a longing or ache, maybe even for someone you haven’t met yet. Loneliness isn’t always bad; sometimes you need it to pull you into the world or to see things more clearly. But in its extreme forms, it can be crippling and can take hold of millions of people.

Solitude exists at many levels and takes different forms. It can be understood as a basic, elemental aloneness that we carry with us at all times. People sometimes define it as productive or healthy aloneness. But I think there’s more to it than that. At one level, solitude is part of us whether we enjoy it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we do anything with it or not. From there, it’s possible to shape the solitude that you have. Even in conversation, solitude comes into play; it allows you to stand back from the trend and form your thoughts.

Solitude can take the form of spending time alone. Over time, I have come to find this form essential; I need it not only for writing, not only for thinking things through, but also, often, for experiencing and enjoying things. I love going on long bike rides alone, because I don’t have to talk or stop, I can just be on the road as long as I like, going as fast or as slowly as I wish, looking around me, and letting my thoughts fly. I also love going to performances and films on my own, because I can take them in fully that way. I find solitude essential (paradoxically) for learning a language.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike company. My friends are dear to me. I have friends from across the years, from the various places I have lived, gone to school, and worked. I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have room in my heart for a relationship, should it come along. I imagine there’s someone out there with whom I would get along terrifically well, who wants to build something with me, who can make me laugh, who finds life interesting, who isn’t already with someone, who is fairly close to me in age and priorities, who understands solitude, who shares some interests with me, and who doesn’t ask me to be anyone I am not. I would offer my own version of the same.

Such a thing is possible and wonderful; at this point I have no idea who it would be or how we would meet, or even whether it would happen. If it happened, I think we would meet in person, not online. It would feel right to both of us, not forced. In the meantime–that is, the main time–there is much to do, learn, and enjoy: teaching to do, languages to learn, projects to work on, places to bike to, concerts to listen to, people to spend time with, pictures to take, questions to ask, and things to puzzle through and dream.

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Popularity Sans Teeth

IMG_3280Mitch Prinstein’s New York Times op-ed “Popular People Live Longer” bounces between conflicting conceptions of popularity and fails to establish a working definition. For this reason I trust neither the premise nor the conclusions. Moreover, it relies heavily on Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s meta-study, which examines the relationship between the quality and quantity of one’s relationships (not popularity exactly) and one’s mortality. But what is popularity anyway? Some clarity would have helped.

In the fourth paragraph, in passing, Prinstein seems to define lack of popularity (“being unpopular”) as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely.” This conflation of the subjective and objective confuses the issue. If “being unpopular” is the same as “feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely,” then “being popular” would be the same as “feeling included, connected, fulfilled.” Yet there are plenty of people with few but strong friendships who feel “included, connected, fulfilled.” Does having just a few good friends, then, make you popular, if you feel good about the situation?

If so, then standards definitions of popularity go out the window. In dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, popularity is associated with “common” or “general” approval, not the strong approval or support of the few, or with one’s own feelings of acceptance and fulfillment. Has Prinstein pulled a Humpty Dumpty on us?

No–I suspect that instead he has just used the wrong word and concept. Popularity is not the issue here. It may be that some combination of the number of one’s friends, the quality of one’s friendships, and one’s own feelings of inclusion can have a great effect on one’s health. In fact, Lunstad and colleagues emphasize the importance of the combination: ” Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.” (I view Holt-Lunstad’s study cautiously but see possibilities in the general principle.)

In other words, Lunstad’s study is not about popularity in the first place. Prinstein writes that “Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in.” Yet Holt-Lunstad says “stronger,” not “larger”: “Across 148 studies (308,849 participants), the random effects weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Very well. What about Prinstein’s own discussion of popularity?

He wisely distinguishes between different kinds of popularity, particularly between likability and status–and notes that Facebook likes have more to do with the latter than the former. “Which means that it wouldn’t kill you to step away from Twitter once in a while,” he concludes, bringing me close to to liking the piece. Yet he fails to make other necessary distinctions–not only between subjective and objective states, not only between number and quality of relationships, but also between one’s qualities and others’ responses to them, and between likability and virtue overall.

Likability,” he says, “reflects kindness, benevolent leadership and selfless, prosocial behavior.” First of all, likability, defined in this manner, is not equal to being liked; it is just the state of qualifying for being liked. You can show kindness and benevolence and still be shunned by those around you. In fact, this has happened often through the ages.

But there’s another rub. Often to be kind and benevolent, you have to do things that others don’t immediately like. Suppose, for instance, you are the principal of a school that has had ongoing problems with bullying. To curb the bullying, you institute a schoolwide program of discipline and character education. Students start complaining that it’s stupid; teachers, that it’s taking too much time from other things; parents, that their own child doesn’t need it. But you persist with the plan. Over time, the bullying goes away, and the school’s new practices become habitual. People now praise the character education program for its content and effects. Students who used to dread coming to school now thrive in their classes and walk easily down the hallways. But for this to happen, you had to risk being disliked.

That leads to more brambles still. Likability is not the only virtue in life. Often there is reason to do things that come into conflict with likability. Of course, to do good or to accomplish something important, one need not be gratuitously nasty or cold–but sometimes one needs an independent streak, an ability to think and act alone. It is possible that such internal strength also contributes to longevity.

All in all, Prinstein’s working premise needs much more probing, definition, and refinement. In addition, the forthcoming book (from which the op-ed is adapted) needs a new title. Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World mimics Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (and other titles with similar formulas). It’s too late–the book comes out tomorrow–but did the author and publisher choose this title for the sake of popularity? Or was it meant as a tribute? Either way, it’s a shame; the title limits the book by establishing a flawed opposition. Don’t judge a book by its title and accompanying op-ed, I remind myself, but the two leave me with doubts.

 

I took this photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary.