In search of elusive solitude

The sociologist shows that many voluntarily made the choice — being single, for example, for the sake of a career. Source: Getty Images / Fotobank

The sociologist shows that many voluntarily made the choice — being single, for example, for the sake of a career. Source: Getty Images / Fotobank

Modern city dwellers can easily sacrifice social interaction for the sake of work or other goals they believe to be more important. Recent research based in Moscow also shows that residents of megalopolises prefer friends to family.

Christopher Swader, senior research fellow for comparative social research at the Higher School of Economics, used Moscow’s example to explore the issue, sourcing data from the World Values Survey.

Solitude is related to material success: People who attain it are less oriented toward traditional values such as family; they prefer brief acquaintanceships and pragmatic relations. Moreover, according to Swader, friendship trumps family for many city dwellers. 

Life in solitude is a new twist in society’s development; it is just several decades old, says renowned U.S. sociologist Eric Klinenberg of New York University. The scholar notes that the transition from collective existence to “going solo” is happening before our eyes. The evidence is obvious: In the 1950s, the U.S. single population was 22 percent; today it is nearly 50 percent.

Worldwide, the expert says, there are 277 million single people — nearly twice Russia’s entire population. Klinenberg writes about new “singletons,” which is a group split into classes: young professionals; the middle-age population who are divorced or never married; and the elderly, mainly women and often widows.

The sociologist shows that many voluntarily made the choice — being single, for example, for the sake of a career. This is in line with data from Russian experts.    

According to data compiled by John Cacioppo, professor at the University of Chicago, solitude is directly related to weak immunity, high pressure and other afflictions — essentially the same kind of “risk factor” as smoking or obesity.

The paradox is that solitude is infectious. During an experiment in a U.S. city, experts successfully established with up to 50 percent probability that those who directly interact with singles can also feel forsaken by everyone. If there is a single person among the friends of your friends, this indicator falls to 25 person, etc.

Interestingly, how we experience solitude or ostracism is affected by cultural specifics. 

Not long ago, it was believed that new technologies would save people from solitude — specifically, social networks. However, recent research shows this may hardly be true. Another U.S. expert, Ethan Kross from the Institute for social research at the University of Michigan, spoke about his observations. “We discovered that the more people use Facebook, the more alone they feel,” he says.

Professor Cacioppo calls attention to a paradox: The more people you know in real life, the more friends you have online. Of course, social networks are better than nothing, but the possibility of personal meetings eliminates the need for replacements.

Dmitry Leontiev, head of the laboratory for positive psychology and quality of life at NRU HSE, says that problems of solitude in Russia have their own specifics.

“The problem is compounded by social rifts — vitiated social connections, people’s mistrust of one another and the sense of vulnerability. The reasons for this aren’t only social but also cultural. Traditionally, cultures were split into individualistic and collectivist, depending on whether people are responsible for success in life or they rely on the society and community.

Experts grouped our country among collectivist cultures, but, today, according to recent research, Russia and China stand apart not only for low levels of individualism, but also just as low a level of collectivism,” says Leontiev.

The expert says that in developed Western countries, the erosion of interpersonal connections, where everyone is on their own, is offset by the development of social institutions. Russia, however, lacks social institutions and horizontal support from society.

“As a result, we see, for example, the scandal with pension reform, where people cannot rely on the government, but other ways of ensuring retirement are unknown. Against this backdrop, the problem of solitude becomes more acute; these cultural particulars exacerbate it,” Leontiev says. 

However, solitude is not merely a scourge that people seek to avoid by any means possible, continuously operating stereos or televisions so as not to be alone. For those who have reached an advanced stage of personal development, it can be a precious resource.

“Even the term ‘auto-communication’ has emerged, meaning communication with oneself,” says Leontiev. “Essentially, this necessitates a new education today — helping people feel comfortable on their own.”

First published in Russian in Ogonyok magazine.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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