The Difficulties of Solitude from “Flow”

Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic—resulting in the state we have called “psychic entropy”.

When left alone, the typical teenager begins to wonder: “What is my girlfriend doing now? Am I getting zits? Will I get to finish the math assignment on time? Are those dudes I had a fight with yesterday going to beat me up?” In other words, with nothing to do, the mind is unable to prevent negative thoughts from elbowing their way to center stage. And unless one learns to control consciousness, the same situation confronts adults. Worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family, and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, zap! the potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.

It is for this reason that television proves such a boon to so many people. Although watching TV is far from being a positive experience—generally people report feeling passive, weak, rather irritable, and sad when doing it—at least the flickering screen brings a certain amount of order to consciousness. The predictable plots, familiar characters, and even the redundant commercials provide a reassuring pattern of stimulation. The screen invites attention to itself as a manageable, restricted aspect of the environment. While interacting with television, the mind is protected from personal worries. The information passing across the screen keeps unpleasant concerns out of the mind. Of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift, because one expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward.

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