Strength In Solitude Part 4: Getting Rid Of Connection For Communication; And The Benefits Of Solitude

For the fourth installment in this series on solitude (see parts 1, 2 and 3), I dive further into Cal Newport‘s chapter on solitude in his book Digital Minimalism, and highlight more of solitude’s benefits.

Unfortunately, in this era of constant (not just instant) connection, we are depriving ourselves of an incredibly rich value we are designed to experience.

The condition we are increasingly suffering from is something the computer professor Newport defines as solitude deprivation. In the book he puts it this way:

Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds (Pg 103).

Listen in very carefully how Newport defines solitude deprivation. His argument is set in the context of recent human history, as in as close to all of us as the 1990s, a time when it was extremely difficult to achieve solitude deprivation as he defines it above.

Don’t think so? Don’t recall a time you were free from the inputs from another person’s mind?

Consider some examples he provides, which do justice trying to place ourselves into another time frame not long ago: “waiting in line, crammed into a crowded subway car, walking down a street, working on your yard (pg 103)”.

But might I add:

With no walkman (’90s),

No iPod (’00s),

No smartphone (’10s).

Now the theme of his chapter begins settling in.

Finding ourselves engaged in something from the list of tasks Newport mentions (like taking the subway) provide us with opportunities for healthy solitude.

Yet we are so quick to reach for inputs from other’s minds. We can’t even go to the bathroom without having someone tell us something from our smartphone speakers.

But it’s the following distinction Newport makes which woke me up immensely, personally convicted me. It’s this newer drive to connect instead of communicate which has moved us away from healthy solitude.

Regarding a statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, about his company’s persistence that connection must be elevated over communication, that it is more important to connect the world than make it communicate better, Newport writes the following strong rebuttal:

This obsession with connection is clearly overly optimistic, and it’s easy to make light of its grandiose ambition, but when solitude deprivation is put into the context of the ideas discussed earlier in this chapter, this prioritization of communication [Newport uses this word interchangeably here but means how Facebook mistakes communication as connection] over reflection becomes a source of serious concern. For one thing, when you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.

Pg 103-104 [emphasis added], Digital Minimalism

The aim of connectivity for connectivity’s sake (sitting on a toilet and reading an angry twitter rant) diminishes the needed art of reflection, which is desperately required for effective communication. What solitude does for us is more beneficial than what I, and I am sure many others, would assume prior to having read this chapter.

Here I further break down the list of positive outcomes solitude produces from Newport’s quote above. And I do it through personal reflection:

The ability to clarify hard problems.
This one stings a lot. This is because at default I am pretty lousy at problem solving. I run into an obstacle, a wall, a minor speed bump, and I am prone to wander off into any activity other than clearing the hurdle. Then access to the Internet came as I was a pre-teen (waiting for the dialing modem to kick in). Then instant messaging came and I become a college student. But then, social media and the red breaking news banner on came and I was done for when I ran into a problem at my 9-5 desk jobs. See a theme here? As I transitioned in life, so did major shifts in connectivity and it’s fight for control over my attention. If I couldn’t solve something right away, after an initial Google search, off to another open tab about breaking news I went. Off to a blog about theological debates I went. Off to a Google Hangout chat I went with another friend at their 9-5 desk job (who was just as connected and distracted as the rest of us). One step away from healthy solitude.

Regulate your emotions.
This could be just as surprising of a benefit from solitude as well, but consider this for a moment. It’s not merely the angry tweet or the overly optimistic Facebook post we are talking about here. By retreating into solitude, thinking over a tough situation at hand and clarifying the hard problem, emotions are given an opportunity to settle down. In this state things improve. Going to Twitter or Facebook or is defeating since they are literally engineered to stimulate my emotions anyway. It only fans the flame and deregulates an already unstable situation. More solitude decay.

Build moral courage.
The state of solitude is fertile ground for confidence. Not stubbornness or arrogance. But confidence. This is how I am interpreting moral courage anyway. Regardless, solitude and steady retreating within allows me to stand up not only for what I believe in as facts outside myself, but to stand up for myself entirely. Without healthy solitude, I am too connected to too many inputs from other people’s minds, and thus become a people pleaser. I take on other people’s stances even if they are not my own. Or I become infatuated with the rest of us reading someone’s ill advised statement about something clearly different from the perfect worldview I’ve obtained. Solitude deprivation intensifies.

Strengthen relationships.
Newport states this elsewhere in the book. This point about the benefits of solitude may contain the most corrosive long term effect of solitude deprivation.

Without a healthy development of internal solitude, our relationships actually worsen. By a lot.

It’s the appreciation factor at play. Michael Harris’ book Solitude is cited by Newport, where Harris contends three very important advantages born out of solitude: “new ideas; an understanding of the self; and closeness to others.” (pg 98). That last crucial benefit is remarkable. Solitude brings us closer to others. This is because of the confidence solitude instills in ourselves, and then, the appreciation which builds when we finally encounter important people in our lives.

Conversely, later in Digital Minimalism, Newport cites a 2017 study where subjects were asked to weigh in on their perceived social isolation. Researchers found, “the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely” (pg 139). Social media does not build our relationships. Emphatically, it diminishes them and gives rise to loneliness (this point alone is going to lead to many future articles on this site).

It’s an understatement that chronic solitude deprivation degrades the quality of our lives. I know it has done so for me.

Having an actual definition is already serving me well in combating something I was falling victim to without realizing it. Swapping out mere connection for communication. Swapping out the digital dopamine hit for the eye to eye conversation. Swapping out a diminished, anxious, isolated life for a higher quality of life.

Let’s take strides towards communicating and not merely connecting. And let’s do it because we have retreated well into healthy solitude more often than we have in recent decades.

Published by David Mieksztyn

I am a writer passing along what I've learned.

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