Chun: In Good Company

by Steven Chun | 11/8/15 6:30pm

There are certain things you should not do alone. You do not ride a tandem bike alone. You cannot operate a swan boat by yourself. You do not, for example, have a wedding by yourself. But then the list quickly runs out. There are plenty of things we don’t do alone, often for no good reason. When was the last time you saw a movie by yourself? Most people are perfectly happy watching re-watching “Love Actually” (2003) alone in their rooms, but few would dare go out to see a movie without friends. So you end up missing out on what would otherwise be a really enjoyable experience because God forbid people in public see you alone. The self-imposed stigma of being alone is absurd.

In college, it is easy to find friends who want to share experiences with you. For the most part, this is great — but it is absolutely not necessary. As I have come to learn, too many times one person’s scheduling conflict or the lack of a group consensus has scuttled an otherwise amazing day. What many have forgotten — or maybe just never learned — is that riding solo can be just as fun as going out with friends. I get it — nearly everyone at Dartmouth seems like a type-A, Myers-Briggs ENFP, high functioning fun-addict. This does not, however, mean we would not enjoy alone time if we gave it the chance. In fact, there are two compelling reasons to try out what — to most people’s general discomfort — has been coined “masturdating.” (Don’t worry, that phrase will not appear anywhere else in this column.)

The first is that we severely underestimate how much we will enjoy consuming some form of entertainment alone. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that although people typically predict that they will enjoy experiences less if they partake in them alone, this has to do more with how they believe strangers will perceive them and less with how much they genuinely enjoy something. The actual enjoyment of many activities, when done alone rather than with others, actually changes very little, if at all As a general rule, if you enjoy doing something with friends, you will also enjoy it alone — except for tandem bicycles and weddings, of course. Certainly there are times where friends make for more fun, but most people severely overestimate the improvement.

The second reason to try spending more time alone is that no one cares that you are not surrounded by friends, and if you realized that, you would likely enjoy yourself significantly more. Consider two scenarios. In the first, you see a movie alone in a crowded theater. In the second, the theater is completely empty except for yourself. Researchers found that people overwhelmingly prefer scenarios in which there is no one to observe them. The fact that the second is significantly more appealing is insane. It rests on the idea that a crowd of random people in a very dark room — approximately half of which are entirely focused on how badly they need to pee — are going to notice your isolation and expend the energy to make a judgment about how many friends you have. Think back to the last time you ate in FoCo — how many people were eating alone? I am certain that few would remember. No one cares when there’s mac and cheese to be had.

The most severe symptom of our anxiety about being alone is a severe imbalance in the amount of time we spend by ourselves. We live our lives fast, and there’s nothing wrong with that — but no matter whether you are an extravert or an introvert, you need a solid amount of time spent to yourself. Studies have shown that adolescents who spend an intermediate amount of time alone are better adjusted than those on either extreme of the spectrum. Solitude and reflection are incredibly powerful tools. Living in the River Cluster has forced me to take a long, solitary walk at the end of most nights. It has become an essential part of my day, to the point where I tell my friends to go up ahead so I can walk alone. To enjoy yourself only in the company of others is a sad way to live. To all who suffer from alone-anxiety, I have one piece of advice — you must learn to better enjoy your own company, because ultimately you are the only person with whom you will spend your entire life.