Is one the loneliest number--or a singular sensation?
In a society that pushes us into the arms of other people, too little attention is paid to the embrace of solitude.
"Popular culture is suspicious of solitude," says Michael Jolkovski, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va. "The word loner brings up thoughts of multiple burial sites in the back yard. There's considered to be something sinister in being by yourself. So there is a bias against it."
That bias--never more blatant than on Valentine's Day--surrounds us in a land of two-for-one specials, family discounts and the never-ending barrage of relationship-oriented media. Even dining at a restaurant is not always comfortable for a party of one, says Karin Romp, a psychotherapist who practices in Van Nuys and La Canada.
"The host or hostess will say, 'Oh, just one?' Then they stick you in a corner."
Many experts agree that developing relationships is important for our emotional health, but they also praise the benefits of solitude.
In his book "Solitude: A Return to the Self" (Macmillan, 1988), Anthony Storr explores the need for solitary time in the lives of ordinary as well as creative people.
"Two opposing drives operate throughout life: the drive for companionship, love and everything else that brings us close to our fellow men, and the drive toward being independent, separate and autonomous," Storr writes.
Roderick Gorney, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the program on psychosocial adaptation and the future, says U.S. society in particular seems bent on the importance of belonging.
"In the United States, being a member of the gang is a central part of our ethos," Gorney says. "Someone not comfortable with being a part of the gang is often considered a nerd."
Gorney adds that other cultures, such as many Native American tribes, view solitude differently.
"The values of popular culture are based on adolescence--being cool, being a member of the group, being attractive and well-liked," Jolkovski says. "Solitude is one of those few things that can't be exploited by popular culture. You can't have a 'Solitude Channel.' You can't sell it. It doesn't have a lobby in Washington. There are no products, no conventions of people getting together to get solitude. But seeking solitude is a very important part of life."
Los Angeles may be a bit of a paradox in terms of solitude. A big city, full of people with pressure to schmooze and socialize, yet many find themselves spending a lot of time alone, says Richard Ventura, 41, of Burbank.
"L.A. has a reputation of being fast and wild. But I think L.A. would kind of force you into solitude," Ventura says. "Very few people are from here--they come here alone and get used to being alone. It's difficult to meet people here too. The average person in L.A. is by themselves a lot, if nothing else but in transit."
"It seems to me," Storr writes, "that what goes on in the human being when he is by himself is as important as what happens in his interaction with other people. . . . That solitude promotes insight as well as change has been recognized by great religious leaders, who have usually retreated from the world before returning to share what had been revealed to them."
Storr extols the virtues of solitude: getting in touch with deepest feelings; coming to terms with loss; sorting out ideas and encouraging the growth of the creative imagination.
The ability to be alone is a valuable and enriching skill, Gorney says. Instilling this skill in children helps them grow into more independent adults.
He recalls yearly visits to a camp from the time he was 6 or 7 years old. By the time children at the camp were 11, each was expected to spend a night alone on an island as part of that growing experience.
Stephen Goldman, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Las Vegas, says he prefers spending time alone.
"It is not just time alone, it's quality time. No one to bother you, interrupt your thoughts or make you do things," he says. "Even in my relationships, the best ones are when we are both comfortable being alone (together) and not paying attention to each other."
Within a relationship, Romp agrees, "It's healthier to give each other space. But in most cases, one person is threatened by that. It's important both people have a sense of self. Dependency does not result in a happy, healthy relationship."
Says Jolkovski: "You should acknowledge it as a normal thing and don't take it personally when your partner wants solitude. I know I'm an easier person to be around when I've had a little time to get my thoughts together. Sometimes my wife pushes me out the door to go for a run."
Solitude is also soothing for some bad moods, according to a study on mood control conducted over the last few years by Dianne Tice, associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
"When people are angry or irritated, it's better to be by themselves and do quiet, distracting things," Tice says. Grief over a loss--whether it be a loved one or a job--is another good time to seek solitude to come to terms with the sad event, she says.
"You don't always want to eliminate bad feelings. You don't need to grieve all day long, all year long, but reflecting is good for you as you can sometimes learn from it. I don't think you should always try to control moods. Sometimes it's best to suffer them," she says.
Depression and fear, however, tend to be magnified by solitude, Tice says.
"Most people are successful in getting out of a sad mood by being with other people," she says. "And when we're scared or anxious, it helps to be around others."
The reasons solitude is absent from people's lives range from not being able to create time alone to a true fear of being or doing things alone.
For those seeking true solitude, Jolkovski's solution is simple--keep it quiet.
"We have all these devices to save ourselves from being alone--the car radio, the Internet, TV, a Walkman. Why not turn off the car radio for a week and (listen to) your own thoughts? Even music is taking a mood and applying it to you. If you don't have silence, you don't know if the mood's yours or not."
Gender may play a role in choosing solitude or running from it, Romp says.
"Men are socialized to be more independent. Women are more likely to turn to someone else," she says. "Women's socialization is very relationship-oriented. Just look at toys. Little boys play with inanimate toys like trucks, whereas girls' favorite toys are dolls. I'm still amazed to see women in their 20s whose top priority is getting married or having a relationship."
For the past 12 years, Glamour magazine has featured a section called "Private Time," to encourage women to take more time for themselves, says Senior Editor Lisa Bain. One regular column in the section is "My Perfect Day Alone," in which celebrities muse about how they spend a day of solitude.
"Women need to be reminded to take that time," Bain says. "They often feel guilty, but the private time has become more important as women's work and personal lives have grown more crowded."
Various scenarios depict fear of solitude: the woman with an endless string of so-so boyfriends, the workaholic, the panicked soul who reaches out and touches on the telephone at all hours.
Those wishing to overcome their fears of being alone may want to assess the circumstances that make them fearful, Gorney says. To do this, make a schedule and record the degree of anxiety in relation to the activity in each block of time.
"For example, maybe they were most distressed being alone at night," Gorney says. "Once they understand the precise circumstances, they can learn how to tolerate being alone by desensitizing themselves by degrees. Of course, psychotherapy that clarifies the meaning of the fear is frequently a way of treating such conditions."
How much solitude is too much?
"There is healthy alone time and unhealthy alone time," Romp says. "The most important thing is realizing the fine line between being alone and being alone to the point of hiding or avoiding things. Being social is a skill, just like being alone. If self-esteem is high, the rest will take over."
Solitude, to Massachusetts-based writer Alice Koller, means not merely spending time alone but accepting one's aloneness in the world from the beginning to the end of life.
"Each of us is alone. We come into the world connected by a cord, then that cord is cut. That's the end of that connection," Koller says. "At a certain point, a person begins to realize they are alone and will die alone, no matter if they are with people or isolated."
Koller, author of "An Unknown Woman" and "The Stations of Solitude" (both Bantam Books, 1991), two books stemming from Koller's personal journeys while living alone, says reaching that turning point is the first step in accepting solitude.
"Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others," Koller writes. "Because solitude is an achievement. It is your distinctive way of embodying the purposes you have chosen for your life, deciding on these rather than others after deliberately observing and reflecting on your own doings and inclinings, then committing to them for precisely these reasons."
Above all, finding inner as well as outer solitude may be the most honest way of living, Koller says.
"It's not only genuinely being by oneself, but becoming oneself."