24 hours of absolute solitude – a way to absolute happiness?

St. Frances de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and writers, once said, “Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”

I’ve been thinking about statement almost obsessively over the past five days for two reasons: One, I read this article on the “radical idea” of people taking 24 hours of absolute solitude and, two, I got hurt exercising and have been confined against my will as my injury heals.

While every person’s road to happiness is different, there are some things that research shows increase happiness in general, and one of them is a little bit of silence. Not every day, necessarily, and not necessarily for a long time, but some silence sometime. Some of us – the ones already prone to overthinking everything – might actually be harmed by too much solitude, too much “think time.” These folks might be better aimed toward happiness by actively helping other people.

The most amazing group of teenagers I've ever worked with, at the end of our week of gutting two homes destroyed by Katrina so they could be reconstructed on the inside
The most amazing group of teenagers I've ever worked with, at the end of our week of gutting two homes destroyed by Katrina so they could be reconstructed on the inside

I’m a middle-of-the-roader here: I need both active engagement and time alone, and I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, the need for the latter has increased greatly, something I could never have imagined when I was 20. The times I’ve felt happiest (except for the births of each of my kids) have been when I’ve actually DONE something to help someone out, like when I helped gut houses in New Orleans with a bunch of teenagers after Hurricane Katrina.

I need evidence of my work, to see that I’ve done something concrete to make the world a better place, in order to get the hit of happiness that keeps me going in this life. Writing a check to a charity just doesn’t do it, nor does sitting on a board of a charity that does good work I never touch. I’m a hands-on, get-it-done girl who doesn’t like to be told “No,” or “Let’s have a meeting” or “Perhaps we should pray about it.”

Exhausted after a days work gutting houses, sleeping on the floor of a parish rectory that still, a year after Katrina, had no hot water and sporadic electricity
Exhausted after a days work gutting houses, sleeping on the floor of a parish rectory that still, a year after Katrina, had no hot water and sporadic electricity

That said, I’ve found that if I don’t have some reflection time – about 60 minutes/week – my hamster-wheel brain jumps from one idea to another with not a whole lot of direction. I need silence, pure and uninterrupted, to prioritize where my energy would best be spent in this world of need.

I think for most folks, distracted by texting, tweeting, Web surfing, IMing, Face Book and every other technological do-dad, a little silence could go a long way toward offering some perspective and peace.

And most importantly, that silence would give us time to think, as opposed to having our brains be constantly revved up by outside stimuli. Great ideas don’t just jump into one’s mind fully formed, all the nits worked out. Creativity – be it in the science lab or the art studio – is fed by the ability to daydream. And daydreaming can’t happen when one’s mind (or a section of one’s mind) is distracted by NOISE.

One of the many New Orleans homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina
One of the many New Orleans homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This was one of the first things we saw coming into the city.

So, all you happiness seekers out there, some questions for today: Have you ever sought out absolute solitude (no outside stimulation at all, including books) as a means toward peacefulness, happiness or a more contented life? When was the last time you just laid on your back looking at clouds, or, at night, looking at the stars? How does silence – or the lack thereof – affected your overall well-being? Or, are you a person who needs action more than silence for happiness?

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3 comments

  1. Good luck with that – it sounded like you might live somewhat out of town so you might have luck.
    I know that the idea of 24 hours without being buzzed by multiple 200 dB military aircraft is a fond memory for me – and don’t try it on weekends with the regularly scheduled explosions fireworks displays.
    (And try to ignore the freelancers and gunshots).
    Tucson is not exactly the best environment for meditation, although I understand that it is unpatriotic to say so.

    • Patrick:
      There are a couple of places you can get quiet near town – one is out at the Redemptorist Retreat Center at Picture Rocks – you can just wander their trails and it is a great view. Not overly religious, either, so it wouldn’t bother you that way, I don’t think. (They do have religious stuff there – a chapel, stations, etc., but there are paths that don’t have that). Also, the Finger Rock hiking trail is good. I don’t think I could do any of it for 24 hours, but I do find an hour out on a hiking trail is great for perspective.

  2. Renee, I found that life with kids, especially with a 4-year-old who is with me while his siblings are at school, lends itself to time of smelling the roses — when I pay attention to the cues anyway. That’s my silent time these days. It is active and silent at the same time, because I become tuned in to the interior. It is then that I feel joy if I allow myself to. 🙂

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