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The Benefits of Solitude (thewalrus.ca)
180 points by tintinnabula on Apr 21, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

I haven't spent 5 months in Antarctic solitude like Byrd, but I did live on a bicycle for a year while circling North America. I'd go multiple days without seeing anyone else, sometimes in the desert and sometimes in the forest. It changed my life, in ways that's hard to communicate to people who haven't spent time in actual solitude.

These days I live in a fairly remote part of Alaska, but we have good cell coverage here now. It's different being in wilderness while still having the possibility of being connected. I feel different when I get into a valley where there's no coverage. I'm tempted to get a satellite device for emergencies, but part of me relishes the impossibility of contact with the outside world for a time. That's a good issue to wrestle with.

If you haven't experienced true solitude yet, go find some. It's pretty grounding.

A few years ago, I did a solo hike around midnight to a spot in Bryce Canyon hoping to get a glimpse of the night skies. I had my camera situated on an outcropping taking pictures at set intervals while i was laying down staring at the night sky and the canyon below. I felt a strange and comforting sensation... Goosebumps and everything. I was in this vast wilderness in the middle of the night and yet i felt "cozy" like i'm in a small place. Like this is it, I'm home. I was miles away from civilization but felt i was still a part of something much bigger at that particular moment. I imagined that's what a lot of old explorers must have felt when being out on their journeys. I live in Colorado and play in the mountains quite a bit and while I don't want to sound like a crazy hippy but that experience and a few others like it have really showed me that people (maybe not all but some) are tethered to nature on some subconscious level. It's mysterious and almost magical. But these are the experiences i cherish when I'm out alone in the wilderness.

Another hypothesis might be that people know on some subconscious level that the real threat in the world is other people. I don't mean threat in the sense that you'll be killed but in society there is constantly a power struggle, as a man you try to climb the dominance hierarchy or if you don't try to climb it you feel weak because you know deep down that you're not top dog and there's a lot of consequences to that status etc.

Where as if you go somewhere where you're certain there's no other people around then you're free of all that, free to express yourself without worrying even a little about other people judging your every little movement, every behaviour.

In a somewhat different way, this is the same reason I prefer to work at night. I can get an 8-10 hour stretch with no distractions!

Thanks for sharing...you've also reminded me that's it's been a while since I've read Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire [1]. I think I may have to pull it off the shelf this weekend and dive in for another read.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Desert-Solitaire-Edward-Abbey/dp/0671...

+1 for this book. Abbey argued strongly and persuasively for the wilderness and raged against it disappearing, not just from existence with paved roads and air conditioned cabins but from our imaginations.

Yeah, this is something I miss as a kid.

I wish I was back home with my granddad and just farming sometimes. He is an awesome man but I cannot buy land in India anymore.

Edit: He used to manage an "Ashram" which was basically just a private little river facing house in a village. He maintained the bushes/trees/plants and all that jazz and just chilled. It was good. It was simple.

I live alone in the suburbs, and I regularly don't see people for days after I stock up on food and hole up by myself in my apartment.

I know what you mean about solitude in the outdoors, though. I'm not sure if the difference for me is so much about the inability for potential contact with others, but more of a feeling of the appreciation and awe of nature, and the feeling of insignificance and almost intrusion in an environment that is not tailor-made for supporting human life (as civilization is), as well as being alone with one's thoughts instead of reading other people's thoughts in books or online or distracting oneself with other media. There's a lot more time for introspection and reflection when one is alone and away from humanity and its cultural products.

I often think about this. Having so much space around you and nobody, you must feel half part of nature, half king of the area. Freedom somehow.

This article is really more about the need to experience nature, and wild environments (non-urban), than it is about the "benefits" of solitude. In fact, it does more to point out the negatives of solitude (potential death from frostbite) than it does to highlight positives.

Based on my own experience some solitude is healthy and positive, even necessary for deep work. But too much is quite dangerous for one's mental health. So while I whole heartedly agree that we could all benefit from experiencing more natural environments, I don't think solitude is the answer. We are social animals, even those of us who don't identify with being so.

The "wild environments" offer concrete examples of the benefits of solitude. They're reduced anxiety, not being on pills, boosts to your the immune system, etc. Solitude generally accompanies the wilderness, and wilderness is the tangible gateway to the insight and humility you might gain from solitude.

But of course the wilderness doesn't strictly mean not socializing. Talk to anyone who's thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail or similar and you'll hear about how social of an experience it was, between the times of solitude. The thing is that there is no solitude in heavily populated environments, where things like work are what you're supposed to do. This is the point of the article: in cities, in society, you're not able to focus on the simple joy of your existence, as Byrd was. In solitude you're free from the urban burdens and obligations that stress us, despite how well we've adapted to them.

The Appalachian Trail isn't wilderness. I recall reading somewhere that by some definition related to road building (if memory serves) there is no true wilderness in the lower 48. Alaska is it for the US, at least by that particular definition. Sorry, no citation.

Of course, Canada is handily next door.

You have to go into some parts of the Rockies for what wilderness remains in the lower 48. I've fished some alpine lakes that likely hadn't seen any human in a year, if even.

The road rule is actually part of why certain groups push to build roads on public lands, because it reduces the land's environmental status and access to protections from exploitation.

When I lived in Montana, I would regularly hike trails that clearly hadn't seen someone in at least a year, sometimes several, and this was only a little ways outside of Bozeman. I am unfamiliar with the road-building/true wilderness definition, but I can confidently say that there is plenty of wild to be found in the lower 48, by any reasonable assessment.

Sure. I was using the term colloquially, as I think the author was.

A study from the University of London, for example, found that members of the remote cattle-herding Himba tribe in Namibia, who spend their lives in the open bush, had greater attention spans and a greater sense of contentment than urbanized Britons and, when those same tribe members moved into urban centres, their attention spans and levels of contentment dropped to match their British counterparts.

This should be the study:


That same team did the most remarkable (in my eyes) experiment with the same tribe too.

They basically controlled for everything, if you read the paper, except for the language used for colours, and showed how a colour that's incredibly distinct for us, is incredibly hard to distinguish for them and vice-versa.

Go here: https://vimeo.com/120808489 You need to find the odd colour out in the rings at: 5:40 (easy for them, hard for us) 6:30 (so easy for us that it's hard to imagine it being hard for anybody)

That is an awesome video. Thanks for sharing!

Are there jobs like this out there that you can do for months at a time without being too skilled?

He was manning the Antarctic station - that sounds like it involves routine work that anyone can do (absolutely no offense), are there jobmarkets out there for these sort of gigs?

Just curious really.

I enjoyed reading some of the blog posts on here awhile back: http://www.gdargaud.net/Antarctica/index.html.

The author spent a number of seasons, including winter, in Antartica. From what I remember he was a "techie" who would run/maintain experiments for European universities; outdoor experience & knowledge on how to operate a LIDAR were his qualifications for the job. The tasks may sound mundane however even running an ethernet cable by -70c is more challenging than it sounds.

There is also an American station but it's rather crowded so I doubt you'd get to enjoy solitude there. The British station is less crowded but I heard it smells terrible.

I'm not sure if there's much of a market for it (I think it's shrinking), but fire lookouts are one job like this. I enjoyed reading Fire Season which is basically half history of the Forest Service & wildland firefighting and half a guy's personal account of being a fire lookout.

He was doing that job in 1934. The world has changed a lot since then. Of course there is still need for routine jobs in Antarctica too (janitors, cooks etc.). However, there is a long list of applicants who want to go to Antarctica. You might enjoy [1].

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2361700/

I used to dream about being a light house keeper but I'm sue those jobs are no more.

Firewatch, maybe? I know literally nothing about it.

Since most of the comments (and TFA) is about solitude, but more in nature, I want to chime in about solitude in an urban setting. For the 18 months I was a digital nomad (while waiting for a US visa to move back near my cofounders), About 6 months were spent in cities where I didn't know anyone when I arrived, and roughly about 3 months were spent in "city solitude", the first couple weeks in each new city I went to.

During this time I wouldn't really have any directed conversation with humans. I'd thank a store clerk, make an order at a cafe or restaurant, that's it. Mostly because I didn't know the local languages in some of these countries (Asia), but sometimes even where I did. I was incredibly lonely the first time it happened due to the former (language), but towards the end of my nomadism it meant something else. I began to seek that time, and use it to commune with the place, the city, and to think truly independently without disrupting my lifestyle. These are big bustling people-filled places I'm talking about -- Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Osaka, Bangkok. I can speak Japanese fluently, yet every other week I spent in Tokyo I'd avoid personal interactions, while still going out regularly for dinner, or a run, or to a cafe. You start to see the place as a friend, and understand it more.

Ironically, you begin to be able to understand humans better from this time not being a part of their society. It's stepping away from individuals (friends/family/coworkers/date) you focus on, and suddenly you can observe the humanity around you with an even emphasis. You can see which things they take for granted, how they prioritize life, what makes them tick. You see things, learn things, understand the guiding fabric of their society (and to some extent the global one) from a third-person perspective, which is very different from what I saw while an active part of it.

This same perspective also makes you feel a great deal of freedom from those social rules, yet acute awareness of them (much like with a friend, you don't have to deal with their lifestyle if you don't want to, you can look at their life more objectively than if they were your partner or family). You think about things, try things, plan things, make choices very differently than if you are being socially influenced directly by those around you. Being a foreigner/outsider in those places probably accentuated it, but likely is a prerequisite to feel that way in a city.

I really feel like it permanently changed the way I see the role of society, places, and my human relationships to be a completely different perspective.

There are moderate ways to experience nature and escape the cities. I try to get outside for walks every day, and out to the desert or the mountains once or twice a month. And I set my home office up with a window looking out at a large mountain. Small efforts like this do add up.

I don't believe the author did much of a job in selling the benefits of solitude, but it has once again stoked the embers currently within me to get away from everything connected to a socket, and from everyone (or almost everyone) connected to one another through a device.

Given the consistency at which articles of this nature appear on HN and other tech communities, it appears to be either a common residual feeling or one that is on the rise amongst us in the tech world?

It strikes me as the simple intersection of the fact that tech people as a group are significantly more introverted and solitude-seeking than the population at large, and that solitude is most easily achieved away from civilization.

(Not to imply any judgement. I unashamedly fit the stereotype in this respect to a T.)

Translation for metric units users:

−57 °F ≈ −49 °C

"consider stationing employees who need to concentrate outside the city"

This reminds me of the Bell Lab's old Holmdel research complex. A ton of early microwave research was done there in the 50s when it was basically just a farm. It wasn't till later that they built the facility that now stands there.

Cray Research was similar. Business org in the city, R&D on a purpose built farm in Chippewa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seymour_Cray#Cray_Research

It's true that hardware engineering and manufacturing were in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, while the corporate HQ and software people were various suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota (first Bloomington, then Mendota Heights and downtown Minneapolis, then Eagan, then back to Mendota Heights, &c...). But that's mostly because Control Data had set Seymour up with a lab in Chippewa Falls, and he just stayed in place in '72 when he quit.

True, but that wasn't accidental. Cray helped start Control Data, and he placed the lab in Chippewa Falls in order to do R&D away from nuisances.

Turn off your cell phone. Go take a long walk in nature, away from a city and the related noise and distractions. Try to make it a regular habit. You will benefit and find it enjoyable.

The Santa Cruz mountains, redwoods, Point Reyes, etc, are all great for this right in the bay area.

Worth reposting, one of the best essays on this topic is William Deresiewicz's Solitude and Leadership, previously discussed at HN:


Firewatch is an excellent indie game that deals with themes of solitude and escape.

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