As previously discussed on the Deep End, there are many reasons to regret the dominance of the open-plan office – not least its part in the conspiracy against silence. However, it’s not just silence that’s under threat from modern life, but also solitude.

Here we have to make a distinction between solitude and loneliness, the latter being an all too common feature of 21st century societies. Indeed, while we’re remarkably indifferent to the social isolation suffered by millions of fellow citizens, especially the elderly, it’s the decision to voluntarily spend time alone that is viewed as aberrant.

The point is made in a thought-provoking article by Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe:

“In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.”

Hence the contemporary workplace in which private offices and closed doors are frowned upon (or reserved as a special indulgence for senior executives). Yet, whether at work or at home, the evidence is that periods of solitude nourish the mind:

“…an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking… Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.”

Even if you’re not chained to a desk in an open-plan office, other features of modern life militate against solitude:

“…the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between ‘alone’ and ‘together’ has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.”

It is now understood that unwanted, unrelieved loneliness has negative medical and economic consequences, but what does the opposite problem do to us?

Neyfakh cites evidence showing that solitude has a crucial part to play in developing personal identity, creativity and diligence. And there’s something else – a benefit of being alone that may seem counter-intuitive:

“Adam Waytz in the Harvard psychology department… recently completed a study indicating that people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.”

The implication is that a society without space for true solitude will become characterised by shallowness, distractedness, groupthink and distrust of outsiders.

This is something that’s clearly understood in Whitehall. The first thing that the civil service does to  a new minister is fill his or her diary with back-to-back meetings. Ministers who wish to spend some time each day alone with their thoughts have to fight for the freedom to do so.

It’s as if the permanent institutions of government don’t want our elected representatives thinking for themselves.