The decline of solitude

The noise level is rising.

In public spaces everywhere people are talking on their cellphones, chatting on social media, or laughing at a movie they’re watching on a portable viewer.

And in the workplace, offices are now designed to create spontaneous interaction, with the idea that open design will allow ideas to flow and grow freely.

In a world such as this, where can we go for silence?

Susan Cain writes an eloquent opinion piece in the New York Times that examines the supposed payoff of “groupthink” versus working in solitude. According to Cain, “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

…Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

…And yet. The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.

…Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

So what are the consequences of this new, hypersocial, crowded world we live in? How to retreat, for extended periods of time, without being labeled ‘unwilling’ or ‘uncooperative?’

I was delighted to note, at a recent art crawl, one gallery was set aside, empty except for several chairs, for people to take a break from all the visual stimuli.

And it was also interesting to see how the new silent movie “The Artist” has been received with such welcome arms. Is it perhaps due in part to our nostalgia for a quieter time?

Your thoughts welcome, as always.

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