Solitude, in the form of living alone, has cropped up as a growing trend in the United States (see Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg).
About 28 percent of all households in the U.S.today — that’s 32 million people — are inhabited by “singletons” compared to about 4 million people living alone in 1950. By international standards, those numbers are actually low; in Sweden, the number of households with only one occupant constitutes almost half (47%) of all the country’s households, and Norway is next in line with 40%. Currently, the three nations with fastest growing numbers of single people are China, India and Brazil (see The New York Times, February 5, 2012, “One’s a Crowd”, opinion piece by Eric Klinenberg).
Solitude can be thought of as one form of social participation. In the past, living alone has sometimes projected an aura of negativity — such as a perceived risk of isolation and minimal social participation. Klinenberg says that living alone does not isolate people, in fact, quite the reverse — living alone encourages socialization as single adult people often have more free time and less family obligations than those who live with others. “Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures.” Other evidence suggests that older adults who live alone have the same number of friends as their married peers and are more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors than those who do not live alone.
Also, according to Klinenberg, several social factors are driving this movement toward living alone: 1) women’s massive movement into the work force, enabling them to be economically independent in adulthood; 2) the connectedness provided by modern technology directly from the home; 3) urbanization, which supports a culture of people who live alone but who want to be out and about with each other as well; and 4) the phenomenon of people living longer, women especially, yielding a stage of life when it’s common to be a singleton. Says Klinenberg, “Most older widows, widowers and divorced people remake their lives as single people.” What’s new is that these people actually prefer living alone to their other options.
In my book, The Meaning of Everyday Occupation, I address the concept of solitude in two chapters.
In Chapter 6 (Occupation and Meaningful Connection), the meanings of solitude and the health-promoting aspects of balancing experiences of separateness and attachment in one’s life are reviewed. I quote May Sarton from her 1980 journal, Recovering: A Journal: “The two greatest yearnings of humans may be the yearnings for inclusion and the yearnings for distinctness” (p. 142). I describe the research findings that reveal, in accord with the research described above, that having private rather than shared rooms in institutional settings such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities may actually increase the amount of daily social interaction that takes place. A counterpart to this situation is, perhaps, the young adult singleton in the city who lives alone but who balances this solitude by getting out and about in public.
In Chapter 9 (Creativity in Occupation), I describe the writing space I developed in my home and make the statement that “…my most creative work seems to be done when I am in this space alone — in solitude.” People are, in fact, now more likely to see alone-ness in a positive light, to purposefully seek solitude and the opportunity to be alone and/or to live alone.
Some have stated that the peace of solitude is hard to attain in modern society (see, for example, Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self). People find themselves seeking out experiences of solitude in different ways. Writing for the New York Times last month, Guy Trebay referred to his car as his sanctuary; “In a car I feel free, in my own autonomous zone . . . Cars are one of the few remaining spheres in which it is possible to be uninterruptedly alone with one’s thoughts” (NYTimes, May 20, 2012). Some individuals satisfy their need for solitude and quiet by periodically retreating to monastic or religious centers; “I don’t attend services when I’m there — I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness” (Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” NYTimes, Jan. 1, 2012) (this same NYT issue has a listing of places around the U.S. that offer this type of “full-stop break from everyday life” (Susan Thomas)).
But for all of us, there are many ways to find solitude. For me, I have developed a routine of taking 2-mile walks around my neighborhood several times a week. At least three people, at different times, have asked me to let them know when I’m going out for a walk — they would like to walk with me. But I respond with candor that I love walking alone — it’s my guaranteed time of solitude and being alone with my thoughts.
Eric Klinenberg, the guru sociologist cited above who has so recently raised our awareness of the phenomenon of living alone, was asked in an interview if he had ever lived alone. His reply was, “Only when I’m traveling. I’m now married with two young children. But in the past I did live alone for a time. It was quite wonderful.”