Retirement brings new opportunities for being alone. But do we want to be alone? Should we be alone? Many of us have mixed feelings about solitude. We know that keeping one’s friends and social connections is important as we age and that we have to make an effort to maintain these once we’re out of a work environment (where we might have had several dozen human contacts a day or more and rarely were left alone). If we’re naturally sociable, once we’ve said goodbye to the daily trip to the office, we may lean towards building a lot of activities into our schedules to keep in touch with former colleagues (at least I do). Younger people are never away from their friends and sometimes we follow their lead by checking for new Facebook reports on the whereabouts and goings on of former work pals and acquaintances. We also keep in regular touch via email. It’s very difficult to disconnect.
Liking or disliking solitude has cultural origins. We in the United States are thought of as appreciating solitude more than people in other countries. During the five summers we spent studying Spanish in Mexico friends often told us, “Unlike you, we must be surrounded by relatives and friends all the time. We hate being alone.” While there, I sometimes felt guilty for wanting to escape to our room to read or close my eyes for a few minutes of peace, though neighborhood roosters often made that difficult. But at least they didn’t expect a response.
Now new studies have been published that suggest that solitude can be healthy. According to an article by Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe on-line, “… an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking.” In other words, solitude should not be confused with loneliness, which can be experienced even in a crowd. In the same way that physicians prescribe exercise and a nutritious diet for what ails us, some researchers are suggesting that we set aside time in the day to decompress alone. This strikes me as good news. Social gadfly that I am, I still like time when I can ignore everything but the novel in front of me, my project du jour, or another chapter of my memoirs of 23 years working in whatever you call the part of the storm that surrounds the calm eye.
One piece of advice: remember to limit the time you spend in solitude. If you find yourself in should we say “legal trouble,” you don’t want your neighbors referring to you as a “quiet loner.”