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Do you know the difference between 'lonely' and 'alone'?

Dr. Claudia Aguirre

Imagine sitting alone in a room with no TV, internet, phone or external stimulation. No music, no street noises or people. Just you and your thoughts. Now imagine the only other thing in the room is a small device that delivers an electric shock to your body. Could you handle ten minutes of solitude with your own thoughts? Or would you rather shock yourself?

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Researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard tested this very scenario and found that nearly 70 percent of men reach for the shock machine instead of being alone for 6-15 minutes with nothing but their thoughts; 25 percent of women did the same. Are we inherently uncomfortable with ourselves? Or have we simply lost the ability (or desire) for mind-wandering and boredom in our increasingly hyper-connected world? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost half of adults today don’t live with a spouse, and 27 percent live on their own. Additionally, 46 percent of all adult eating (meals and snacks) is done alone. In fact, a new restaurant catering exclusively to the solo diner has opened up to success in Amsterdam. Solo traveling often conjures images of a reclusive individual who inevitably loses out to the vast wilderness of nature. Yet the rising number of people of living, working, traveling and dining alone hasn’t translated into more of us experiencing the quiet space—or even the unsettling insecurity—of being truly alone. In many ways, we are increasingly alone, together.

In 1654, scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Technology hasn’t created this inability, but perhaps it serves it. One of the more surprising conclusions of the above-mentioned solitude study was that people did not show a particular fondness for being alone, no matter their age. It also found that people who were more agreeable or cooperative were more likely to enjoy their solitude. And those who enjoyed daydreaming fared better, too. Perhaps there is a way to cultivate a productive solitude, one founded on the right quality of attention. Mindfulness meditation as a form of mental training aims to reshape our relationship with our own thoughts, allowing them to occur without attaching or reacting to them. It may even retrain the mind to steer thoughts into a more pleasant direction, dampening the anxiety-inducing rumination that often clouds our thinking. In the U.S., we’re currently spending only 17 minutes a day relaxing and thinking as a leisurely activity. Wouldn’t it be nice if we used this time to get to know ourselves better so we’re more comfortable just being?

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