Does the idea of being alone fill you with dread, or seem a luxury? Erica Buist speaks to five people whose lifestyles leave them in splendid isolation
Whats the difference between solitude and loneliness? We may confuse the two because weve been trained since we were young to think about them as the same state. By sending children to their rooms as punishment, we teach them the idea that aloneness is a privation. It should be a reward, says Sara Maitland, author of How To Be Alone. It should be: Youve been so good that now you can go to your room to be by yourself and do anything you like!
Its true that social isolation is a risky business. If you look at it epidemiologically, its a surprisingly powerful bad thing, says Steve Cole, genomics researcher and professor of medicine at UCLA in California. His research found it to be a substantial risk factor influencing whether people get sick and die. Everything seemed to eat up the body of a lonely person faster.
But loneliness is simply being alone and not liking it, says Maitland. And while over 9 million adults in Britain say they are often or always lonely, she doesnt believe we have, as scientists say, a loneliness epidemic. An epidemic means an infectious disease, which is inaccurate and stigmatising. Rather, Maitland believes we are underskilled when it comes to being by ourselves, and that we were deprived of those skills as children. Everybody says it is natural for the human species to be social, she says, yet we put enormous amounts of effort into training our children to be sociable. We tell them, dont fight, say thank you, share your toys , we send them to playgroup. Were depriving them of the skills for being alone.
There is also, says Maitland, something weird about a culture that encourages high self-esteem yet discourages us from spending time with the person we ought to like best. Living in a rural village 70 miles away from the nearest railway station, Maitland says people feel sorry for her because she never goes to any parties. I dont feel sorry for me. We should be listening to people who enjoy aloneness more, and not assume theyre mad or somehow selfish.
For some, solitude is the ultimate prize, the key to happiness. So whats the art of being alone? I asked five people who love nothing more.