There’s plenty of evidence, he acknowledges, that living alone can be damaging. Exile once ranked as the severest form of punishment — a fate worse than death. Indeed, throughout history and in all cultures, the family unit has been the building block of society, crucial for protection, food-gathering and reproduction. Other species, too, exhibit the tendency toward collective living. Even hermit crabs, their name notwithstanding, need company. Left alone, they suffer deteriorating health, and they may lose a leg or a claw.
Many people interviewed for Klinenberg’s study, however — from young professionals to divorced middle agers to independent seniors — attest to the benefits of solo living. They describe feelings of complete freedom, the joy of being able to follow your own schedule, indulge your own habits and focus on your own growth and development instead of always considering or caring for someone else. No compromises. No sacrifices. No attachments. These upbeat singles typically find themselves more socially active, not less. “Although we often associate living alone with social isolation,” Klinenberg writes, “for most adults the reverse is true.”
Among the sometimes data-packed paragraphs, “Going Solo” readers meet a host of engagingly profiled “singletons,” the word Klinenberg uses for his subjects, each one an example of what living alone can look like. There’s “bold and brazen” Ella, a lawyer who loves to travel and has perfected the art of the independent life. There’s Helen, twice divorced, who declares that she was never more unhappy than when she was married and is thrilled to be on her own. And there’s Joan, a senior who relishes her autonomy and wants to avoid being dependent on or too involved with her adult children and their families. These people are proof that living alone is not synonymous with being lonely.
What’s notable about these upbeat singletons is that they view solo life not as an opportunity to withdraw, but as a chance to reach out. Instead of being restricted by the demands of a relationship or the obligations of a family, they are free to pursue what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “the cult of the individual.” But like Thoreau, the famous American individualist who built a cabin in the woods and relished having his “own sun and moon and stars, and little world all to myself,” these 21st-century urban singletons with ready access to social media can, essentially, walk into town at a moment’s notice. They can reconnect.