Enjoying Solitude and Other People | Walking in Flow


“More than anything else, the quality of life depends on two factors: how we experience work, and our relations with other people. . . .We are biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world. Because they can make life either very interesting and fulfilling or utterly miserable, how we manage relationships with them makes an enormous difference to our happiness. If we learn to make our relations with others more like flow experiences, our quality of life as a whole is going to be much improved.


On the other hand, we also value privacy and often wish to be left alone. Yet it frequently turns out that as soon as we are, we begin to grow depressed. It is typical for people in this situation to feel lonely, to feel that there is no challenge, there is nothing to do. For some, solitude brings about in milder form the disorienting symptoms of sensory deprivation. Yet unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration. For this reason, it is essential to find ways to control consciousness even when we are left to our own devices.” (164-165)

“Of the things that frighten us, the fear of being left out of the flow of human interaction is certainly one of the worst. There is no question that we are social animals; only in the company of other people do we feel complete. In many preliterate cultures solitude is thought to be so intolerable that a person makes a great effort never to be alone. In many different human societies, the worst sanction the community can issue is shunning. The person ignored grows gradually depressed, and soon begins to doubt his or her very existence. In some societies the final outcome of being ostracized is death: the person who is left alone comes to accept the fact that he must be already dead, since no one pays attention to him any longer; little by little he stops taking care of his body, and eventually passes away. The Latin locution for “being alive” was inter hominem esse, which literally meant “to be among men”; whereas “to be dead” was interim hominem esse desinere, or “to cease to be among men.” Exile from the city was, next to being killed outright, the most severe punishment for a Roman citizen; no matter how luxurious his country estate, if banished from the company of his peers the urban Roman became an invisible man. . . . The density of human contacts that great cities afford is like a soothing balm; people in such centers relish it even when the interactions it provides may be unpleasant or dangerous. The crowds streaming along Fifth Avenue may contain an abundance of muggers and weirdos; nevertheless, they are exciting and reassuring. Everyone feels more alive when surrounded with other people.” (165)


“There is no question that we are programmed to see out the company of peers . . . Animals that develop a competitive edge against other species through cooperation survive much better if they are constantly within sight of one another. . . . As human adaptation began to rely increasingly on culture, additional reasons for sticking together became important. For instance, the more people grew to depend for survival on knowledge instead of instinct, the more they benefited from sharing their learning mutually; a solitary individual under such conditions became an idiot, which in Greek originally meant a “private person” -- someone who is unable to learn from others.


At the same time, paradoxically, there is a long tradition of wisdom warning us that “Hell is other people.” . . . And when we examine the most negative experiences in the life of average people, we find the other side of the glittering coin of gregariousness: the most painful events are also those that involve relationships.


How is it possible to reconcile the fact that people cause both the best and the worst times? This apparent contradiction is actually not that difficult to resolve. Like anything else that really matters, relationships make us extremely happy when they go well, and very depressed when they don’t work out. People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with. The same person can make the morning wonderful and the evening miserable. Because we depend so much on the affection and approval of others, we are extremely vulnerable to how we are treated by them. Therefore, a person who learns to get along with others is going to make a tremendous change for the better in the quality of life as a whole.


It is the very flexibility of relationships that makes it possible to transform unpleasant interactions into tolerable, or even exciting ones. How we define and interpret a social situation makes a great difference to how people will treat one another, and to how they will feel while doing it.” (166-167)


“A social situation has the potential to be transformed by redefining its rules….Human relations are malleable, and if a person has the appropriate skills their rules can be transformed.”(168)


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