The words solitary pleasure and mental health would not seem to go together, yet a case can be made for just that. The August 12 post at mentalhealthandhappiness.com describes how people need to cultivate a solitary pleasure as a way to nurture a relationship with themselves. This is interesting and important on several levels.
When I was a young man I remember hearing that you had to be a me before you could become a we. I took that to mean that it’s important to establish your own identity and to be strong within yourself before you attempt to meld your life with a significant other. Even as we connect with others socially and even if we are in a relationship with a significant other, though, there is something very solitary about the human condition. Mental health seems to require an inner personal strength that is comfortable with solitude. Me before We also conveys the importance of learning how to be fulfilled and secure within yourself, rather than being dependent on another person fixing your insecurity.
Another way in which solitary pleasure can be healthy is described in Positive Addiction (1976), where Glasser described how people can be “addicted” to an activity that is actually good for them. After visiting with and surveying runners, he concluded that if certain conditions were met, the act of running could bring the runner into a special mental state where contentment, confidence, and creativity flourished. The runners admitted that if they could run with ease for around an hour, and if the element of competition was not present, they would experience a kind of runner’s “high” that strengthened them and seemed to prepare them to meet their responsibilities even more effectively. They also admitted that when they didn’t run for awhile they began to feel less healthy – physically and emotionally – and wanted to get their running shoes on and get back on the road. Glasser noted that other activities besides running could lead to this Positive Addiction (PA) state as long as the conditions were met. The key is that rather than detracting from our life forces and literally imprisoning us, like negative addictions do, a positive addiction adds strength and creativity to our lives.
And so there is a kind of solitary that is healthy. As humans we need to be able to handle, and even tap into the benefits of solitude. That being said, though, let’s remember that not every kind of solitary is good for us. Choice theory points out the importance of relationships in our lives, and how so much of our emotional distress is created when a relationship suffers. Our mental health, to a great degree, is tied to the quality connections we have with others. So what’s the difference between a healthy solitary and an unhealthy solitary? For me the answer boils down to: Is my solitary a way to escape or is it a way to empower?
The story is told of a man that went out to the wood pile to cut wood, and how at first he cut the wood quickly and made great progress. He had a lot of wood to cut and he was pleased at how easy it was. As the days went by, though, he seemed to cut less wood in the same amount of time. Rather than getting stronger and cutting even more wood, he was cutting less. It got to the point where he seemed unable to get the saw through the wood at all. Discouragement and frustration became his companions as he went out to the wood pile each day to wrestle with the few pieces he could now handle. When a friend stopped by to visit and noticed how slow he was now cutting the wood, the friend suggested that he ought to sharpen the saw. Indeed, the saw was sharpened and the experience became doable and efficient once again.
We each need to be aware of the ways in which our “saws” are sharpened. It could be meditation or morning devotions, prayer, cycling, walking, knitting, gardening, or hitting golf balls. If life is marked by difficulty and drudgery, it may be that our saw is dull and that we are trying to cut the same amount of wood with it. Caring for ourselves is not a selfish act. Ultimately, we can care for others and do our jobs even better when our “saws” are sharpened. When solitary activities empower us to face our responsibilities and connect with others in the process, they are healthy and needful.
One of the important benefits of “sharpening the saw” activities and healthy solitude is becoming more aware of and accepting of ourselves. As the mentalhealthandhappiness.com post suggested, we need to develop and nurture a healthy relationship within ourself and learn how to meet our own needs in the process.
So, in review –
Me before We
Positive instead of negative addiction
Empowerment rather than escape
Keep that saw sharp
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