I recently asked some friends to leave my room so I could be alone. What surprised me was their level of resistance to my request — one that stems not only from an unwillingness to abandon the comfort of my Ikea furniture, but more notably from a bias against the perceived selfishness of solitude.
This bias manifests itself in many ways, from the concept of “FOMO” meant to guilt us out of taking time to ourselves instead of spending time with others, to the stigma attached to self-care more generally. “Me time,” many assume, is selfish and silly — the mark of an antisocial person. It seems that the concept of having time alone and personal space has been made a victim of the pluralistic ignorance that pushes us all to believe in an exaggerated social norm like the desire to binge drink.
Wanting time to oneself should be uncontested, respected even. Not only is it critical for physiological and psychological health, but it improves the health of social environments. Solitude makes it easier to focus and concentrate. Practices like meditation have a host of benefits including reduced stress and depression symptoms. Solitude breeds better thinkers and leaders with the room to develop self-assuredness, as William Deresiewicz testifies in his essay “Solitude and Leadership.”
Time alone and personal space are key elements on an individual’s path to happiness. Economists and psychologists who study happiness find that it is important to complete self-audits of one’s time in order to make happiness work moment to moment, day by day. Communal environments can become stifling without any privacy. The health of a community can be traced to the health of its individual inhabitants, warranting a greater appreciation of the ability to purposefully separate oneself from others from time to time.
The problem is how difficult it is to find time alone, especially personal space, in the midst of shared living situations, especially on a campus that so prizes its social connectedness. The experience of feeling like there’s no place to be alone is part of living in shared environments during college. Having a single room is a rarified fantasy that, when realized, actually lives up to its reputation as a more peaceful way of life.
Recent developments on campus have aimed to ameliorate this problem by providing spaces directly intended for solo contemplation or activity. The Windhover Center is a “spiritual refuge” meant for personal self-dedication. And the new Lathrop Library 24-hour room boasts a space for individual work at any time.
But these developments don’t solve the issue of carving out personal time given the constraints of roommates, friends or the desire to make one’s home base one of personal reflection and study. It’s destructive that the only word in Stanford’s cultural lexicon that supports carving out time away from one’s peers is “sexile,” suggesting that the only activity deserving of privacy is sex. Let’s create an environment in which it is as appropriate to ask for time alone without the need to justify or excuse it, and without a sock on the door handle. And let’s respect others’ need for space, or time, or merely quiet. Stanford culture emphasizes the winds of freedom. We need to create more socially acceptable access to this freedom for introspection.
One of the greatest things about our Stanford bubble, its connectedness, can also be a detriment to student wellbeing. It’s easy to praise our community for its closeness and insistence on values of mutual support and respect, as well as the physical proximity we are guaranteed on campus for all four years of housing. But it is also important to note that while our time here is made special by its being social, occasionally removing oneself from the noise is a healthy thing to do.
A little privacy doesn’t make you a loner. Being vocal about the merit of alone time and personal space proves one’s ability to provide mutual respect for people’s needs that Stanford demands of its student body. It does more than produce healthier, happier individuals and communities. It is the route to an open, questioning mind.
Discussing social issues with your dormmates is not enough. As Mark Twain wrote in his essay “Corn Pone Opinions,” “The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts.” Use alone time and personal space to combat this process. More importantly, be cognizant of your ability to provide the freedom of time and space to others in your communities.
Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.