This was a nice find in an email from a reader this week: a visual poem called “How To Be Alone” by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman and writer Tanya Davis. The joy of being alone is an interesting contrast to all the recent research about how important social connection is to joy and to long-term happiness (some of which I alluded to in my most recent Core77 column). At first it seems that hanging out alone is antithetical to joy, especially given social stigma against it. But I like the poem’s observation that often when you’re alone is actually when you meet the most interesting people. That’s certainly been my experience when traveling — it’s easiest to be alone as a stranger in a strange land, and people often surprise me with their friendliness. I still have friends today that I met on solo adventures in various parts of the world.
Being alone is also an optimal time for finding “flow,” Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s name for being absorbed in creative pursuits. There is also social flow, for sure, but the individual kind has a certain kind of satisfaction to it because it’s all yours.
Solitude is often painted as deprivation, but it can just as easily be self-indulgent. I don’t think I’m one of those people who will ever strap on dancing shoes and go to club on my own (maybe because I just don’t go to clubs that much even with others), but I do savor a little bit of time out every week (this blog being a big product of that). I’ve always been that way too — as an only child growing up in the suburbs, I spent a lot of time watching the world go by from the branches of an old beech tree. It’s nice to see this simple pleasure encouraged, not in the typical authoritative self-help tone, but in a matter-of-fact, yet whimsical way. I like the idea in the poem that to be alone for those not used to it is brave, rather than something you should feel normal doing. We evolved to seek companionship. We find safety in numbers. Solitude can feel unnatural, but rewarding.
It’s not a typical aesthetic of joy. It may even be a counter-aesthetic of joy, in the traditional sense. But I think there’s a quiet delight to be found here.