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Life Lines: introverted intervals

March 29, 2024

Henry Abbott

The first return to the dining hall after any break is overwhelming, suddenly seeing so many familiar faces. The power outage last weekend amplified that feeling and provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the value of being alone. Social time and solitary time, like exercise and rest, are best engaged with in intervals.

While Thorne was teeming with students getting their fix of generator power, I stepped outside for a walk. The sight of the quad stopped me in my tracks: a whole ensemble of trees each encapsulated in icicle sheathes. I took a photo, and my first instinct was to share the picture. I tapped the share icon on my phone and scrolled through the options. I could update a family member on the local conditions. I could share the photo with a group chat, accompanied with a witty caption. Then I realized I had an option that my phone was not showing me: I could choose to enjoy the view alone. I took a breath and kept walking.

I have that same “share” instinct every time I go to the ocean. “I should be sharing this view with someone,” I think. But after pocketing my phone, I always find the solitude fulfilling. It should come as no surprise that I enjoy time to myself. The Myers-Briggs personality test is ambivalent about me in every category but one: I am an introvert. I share this—at the risk of alienating my extroverted readers—to illustrate how strong the draw of social connection is. Even as an introvert, sharing my time with people is my default mode. If I am going for a run, I text a friend and make it a social engagement. If I am heading to study, I automatically head to a space where I’ll find a friend. But I have learned to challenge my autopilot and ask myself if I would benefit from more focused study or from time to process my thoughts.

It is not an easy decision to turn away from people, because people are enticing and stimulating. Relationships are what give my life meaning and what have given me my greatest joys. Social connections are good for our health, and communicating with each other is integral to learning. Yet, like so many things we need, like food and water and sleep, we do not need social time all of the time. Switching gears periodically is good for us.

Our bodies are full of other examples of activities that are salubrious in intervals. We should be exercising, as public health guidelines say, for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. More exercise is better, but only to a point. Even professional athletes build rest days into their schedules.

For those of us who enjoy exercising, it may be an apt metaphor for social time. It is enjoyable, enticing and good for us. If you dislike exercise, it can just as easily be a metaphor for time alone: its alternative may be more appealing, but engaging in a regular dose of it is beneficial. You can pick your comparison, but the conclusion is the same either way: Regularly switching gears between social time and solitude is good for us, like switching gears between exercise and rest.

Different functions are activated within our bodies when we exercise and when we rest. When we exercise, our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-or-flight” response) kicks into gear to increase our heart rate and blood pressure and to improve our performance. Engaging these gears is good for our heart health. While these gears are engaged, other functions are suppressed. The fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system activity inhibits digestion. When we rest, our parasympathetic nervous system (the alternative to the sympathetic nervous system) takes the wheel. The parasympathetic signals decrease our blood pressure and increase digestion. These signals are one reason why we wait after eating a big meal before doing an intense workout. Our physiology is not designed to do everything at once, but instead, to alternate between functions. We do best when we set aside time for each instead of trying to do everything at once.

So, next time I go to the ocean, instead of sharing a video of the waves with my mom or texting a photo to a friend, I will choose to focus on solitude. By taking that time for myself, I may actually serve my relationships more than I would by reaching out. Social research shows that time alone could improve our relationships. Just as resting and digesting our food prepares us to perform well in our next workout, taking time to ourselves can prepare us to better engage with other people. By improving our ability to regulate our emotions, alone time can make us better social partners. Relationships may be what give my life meaning, but alone time is what allows me to make my relationships meaningful.


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