Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

On Music During Work

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

One input at a time, please! Our mind doesn’t do simultaneity.

In his 1974 autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig tells of his father-son bike ride from Minnesota to Northern California. In one stop along the (high)way, they enter a garage for repairs. The mechanic’s radio plays pop music in accompaniment to his work on Pirsig’s motorbike. Pirsig is not amused, reflecting that the ambient music will likely distract the mechanic at critical moments—a screw left untightened, a grommet left out, a gear left ungreased…. The result of these musings are a loss of trust in the mechanic.

The looming theme of the book is the question “What is Quality? The answer includes the requirement that one must focus undividedly on one’s task at hand in order to meet the highest standards—that distractions inevitably subtract from quality. Music is not the only distractor. Conversations, machinery, traffic, television chatter—they all vie for our attention.

Earbuds 5-365 by Tim, CC BY 2.0

5/365, by Tim. CC BY 2.0

Fast forward to today. We now use “mindfulness” the same way Pirsig used Quality with a big q. And radio speakers have morphed into earbuds. With Pirsig’s distracted mechanic in mind, stroll through your work area and look for earbuds. Assuming that having them in one’s ears means that one is listening to a playlist or its equivalent, imagine the distractions going on and the ensuing potential for error. I recently reviewed a document that had been “poofread” by an earbud-wearing associate. It was peppered with errors—mostly errors of omission, such as missing misspellings, skipping whole pages, and other evidence of incomplete attention, or distracted focus. The mind just can’t focus on two things at once—one must be neglected. Of course, some errors result not from incomplete attention but rather from incomplete knowledge.

What does the research say about listening to music while working? Across studies around the globe, two findings emerge. First, the most important consideration is mood. Negative moods tend to improve when listening to music, and, the better the mood, the more productive/creative/effective the worker. Second, in every study, silence beats music as an accompaniment to work. Listening to music relaxes muscles, creates a private space (aurally, at least), reduces blood pressure and heart rate to some degree, and can alleviate anxiety. Yet, across all studies, listening to music while working lowers concentration, comprehension, knowledge acquisition, and future recall. But look at these other factors:

The nature of the music:

  • Extremely high or low pitches (e.g., those emitted by synthesizers) are the most distracting—they’ll keep you awake, that’s true! But, they won’t let you concentrate. They may be good on night shift for simple, repetitive tasks.
  • Music with words is the most counter-productive, especially when accompanying verbal tasks: Two tasks using the same neural processing channel (in this case, verbal) interfere with one another—you can’t be true to two! Other examples of competing sensory channels: listening to news and proofreading (both verbal), watching football while repairing machinery (both visual and kinesthetic), and working with numbers and listening to complex, highly rhythmic music (both are quantitative—the music comprising ratios and other numerical patterns).
  • More familiar music (i.e., you’ve listened to it forever) is less distracting—you know what to expect. The unexpected rhythms, harmonies, timbres, melodies, and words of less familiar music is distracting.
  • Music in a major key (the Happy Birthday tune) is less distracting than music in a minor key (Chopin’s Funeral March).
  • Music that you personally select is less distracting than music selected for you by others.

The nature of the task:

  • Simpler, highly structured, and repetitive tasks are inherently boring—but not for everyone, as some thrive on and are soothed by such tasks. For those who find such tasks bummers, listening to music can improve mood and thereby increase productivity.
  • Verbal tasks (proofreading, writing, reading, editing, interviewing, speaking) should never be accompanied by verbal music, whether Bach or Bacharach, Mozart or Madonna.
  • Performance of low mental engagement tasks, such as stuffing envelopes or riding a stationary bike, improves when listening to any kind of music.

The nature of the work environment:

  • Office etiquette—some co-workers are offended by others’ music listening habits, whether earbuds or boom boxes. While earbuds provide privacy in, for example, open space office areas, some less secure individuals can interpret a neighbor’s earbuds as rejecting, judgmental, or standoffish.
  • Some work areas are like Grand Central Station, whereby using a headset helps concentration. However, the headset doesn’t need to play music. Sony and Bose make noise-cancelling headphones, and you can put White Noise Free on your iPhone or iPad to select sounds of nature (thunderstorms, ocean waves, gentle rain, desert winds, and the like) to mask environmental distractions.
  • A major source of interruptions and distractions is other people who pop into your space thoughtlessly, when their needs could be equally well met by sending text or other less intrusive messages. When I taught at a large university and spent much of my day in an office farm, students, colleagues, and staff were constantly interrupting me. I checked out a tape recorder with headphones (this was 40 years ago!) from the media center and sat at my desk with the headphones on, but with nothing playing—just silence. Problem solved! No more interruptions.

My recommendations:

  • First, no music/noise is best for productivity, creativity, and quality. If earbuds or headsets are necessary to create silence, then go for it. Silence is best.
  • Second, positive mood is mandatory. If music is necessary to improve mood, then so be it. But if errors persist, find other ways to boost mood—incentives, more interesting work, better working conditions, and so forth.
  • Prohibit any kind of music in accompaniment to more complex, unfamiliar tasks, such as writing a macro in Excel to execute a series of multiple variable calculations.
  • Prohibit music with words in accompaniment to engaging, verbal tasks, such as proofreading, editing, or writing.
  • When music is permitted, prefer music in major keys with neither words nor extremes in pitch or volume.

 My personal rule:

  • Silence when mentally engaged (whether working or conversing)
  • Music when relaxing and I can enjoy the music without being concerned about other simultaneous tasks. My exception: For mindless tasks where errors don’t matter, such as folding clothes

Adrift, But Not Sinking

December 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.


Rowboat Adrift, Jeff Marks, 2010. CC BY 2.0

Accustomed to being a provider, teacher, administrator, and therapist, he was suddenly adrift. It was as though the sails, oars, and motor that had energized his boat had disappeared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “Who am I?” he asked daily, hoping for an answer. “What is my purpose?” “How do I fit in?”

I have heard his earnest lament during lunches over the past several years. At last I have caught the universal implications of Mark’s three questions. They are like a proof from my high school geometry days: Given (Who am I?), To Prove (What is my purpose?), and Proof (How do I fit in?) Similarly, they are like construction plans: raw materials (Who am I?), plans (What is my purpose?), and nailing it all together (How do I fit in?).

These three questions form a catechism for personal change. Not just retirement leaves people adrift. Divorce, moving one’s household, caring for a disabled family member, changing cities or countries, changing jobs, marriage, having a baby(ies)… After every such change, I suggest we would benefit from asking ourselves early on how the answers to these three questions are different. Here is a guide to addressing the three issues in the catechism for change, for finding new energy and direction for your boat—adrift after a major change.

  1. Who am I now? Fortunately, even under major, cataclysmic change, the answer to this question doesn’t change appreciably. We are our personality traits—sociable or solitary, casual or perfectionistic, skeptical or trusting. They are strongly based on genetics and are resistant to change. We are our mental abilities—verbal skill, visual/spatial skill, auditory acuity, kinesthetic prowess, strong (or weak) memory, critical thinking, creativity—and they don’t change. We are our values—spirituality, power, relationships, and they are not changed easily. We are our physical characteristics—allergies, hand-eye coordination, motion sickness proneness, and they seldom change. We are our memories—from growing up, from college days, from former jobs, from military service, from our travels and vacations, and those memories don’t change—we just add to them. So the answer to Mark’s first question is the easiest: Who am I? I am essentially who I’ve always been. Whether my change is retirement, divorce, or moving to Canada, I maintain my traits, abilities, values, physical characteristics, and memories. Change cannot take those away from me. But the answer to the next two questions can change immensely.
  2. What is my purpose now? This soul-searching question is about one’s goals, and goals can change dramatically when one’s life undergoes major change. In divorce, the former goal of building a quality relationship changes to building a strong sense of self, and then to perhaps finding a new partner. In retirement, the former goal of providing for my family changes to something else, perhaps something self-indulgent (I want to write a novel!) or socially beneficial (like volunteering at a school, hospital, or homeless shelter). We set new goals to express our changing purpose following major change. Goals for health, learning, spirituality, family. Stephen Covey called such goal-setting “sharpening the saw.”
  3. How do I fit in? This is the question about execution: What do I do with myself? It is about roles. Based on who I am and what my new purpose is, what roles do I need to play in order to be true to myself and to accomplish my goals? Teacher, grandparent, volunteer, scientist, friend, mechanic, tinkerer, chef, storyteller, housecleaner, musician, artist, writer, comedian, scholar, discussion group leader, soldier, politician, social activist, hobbyist, gardener, counselor, lover, organizer, consultant, manager, researcher, athlete, entertainer. Some of my roles will continue regardless of how my life changes (musician, chef, scholar), while other roles can come to a dramatic end with some kinds of change (spouse, at death of a partner; manager, at retirement; gardener, at a move to the inner city), and roles can be thrust upon us as the result of change (parent, upon the birth of a child; soldier, upon an act of war; health activist, upon suffering one’s first heart attack).

This is the time of year that many people take time to be introspective. That is the spirit of the New Year’s Resolution. That is the spirit of the Jewish high holy days, when they figuratively open the book of life on Rosh Hashanah, reflect on questions such as Mark’s catechism, and then close the book of life on Yom Kippur. For me, that time is between Christmas and New Year’s—a time of self-evaluation and personal accounting. What if we committed to beginning a journal in which we revisit Mark’s catechism both once a year and after a major change? That would certainly make for an interesting autobiography. I think I will begin a new file on my computer after finishing this draft, and I will enter an unending, recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for December 26-31 of every year to update my answers to Mark’s three soul-searching questions.

Oh, one more thing. Mark has answered his questions and is comfortable in his new skin. Who he is hasn’t changed—outgoing intellect with a passion for people. His overarching purpose remains the same: to make the world a better place, with some attendant subgoals that are new. What has changed is how he fits in. His roles as gardener, musician, husband, parent, grandparent, and scholar have continued in retirement, but he has added volunteer, homeowner advocate, mentor to young’uns like me, and great grandparent.

When Mark read this draft, he shared some of his earlier answers to these questions. When he was a child, older brother was (in his judgment) smarter; younger sister, more beautiful. So Mark evolved his goal into being the responsible one of the family—he calls it being “Goody Two-shoes.” He would get up at dawn and work in the garden while his siblings slept in. In high school, his purpose was to “be a good student.” Goals and roles both can change upon experiencing a major life change. He recalled with a smile his niece’s glee at learning she had a new baby sister: “I’m not the baby anymore!” Indeed.

Loving is Living

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment

The sleepy Davidson College campus awoke with a start.

It was graduation day in the Spring of 1960. I, a lowly freshman, sat quietly with fellow singers in the Male Chorus. We awaited our next turn to entertain with song. With the audience of faculty, parents, and fellow graduating seniors expecting him to dribble on for 15 minutes, graduating senior and poet-scholar W. Dabney Stuart had given an address that was not a speech but a dare. Here’s what he said, as I recall:

Many people have lived. Many people have died. One of these was Jesus of Nazareth. He said, “Love one another.” I have nothing of significance to add.

friendshipAnd then he returned to his seat. Some thought it an insult to tradition, a sign of disrespect from a rebellious hippy. I thought it the most powerful lecture/sermon/dare I had experienced. Often I have quoted Dabney, now a professor emeritus of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. At the risk of oversimplifying, Dabney had cut to the chase. He got to the point. Southern haiku, as it were. No meat, fat, gristle, or cosmetics–all bone. Life at its essence.

Sharing a value for poetry, I have subscribed to Poem-a-Day for many years. This program of the Academy of American Poets emails one contemporary poem every weekday to subscribers (for free, at,) and one classic poem on Saturday and Sunday.

To my surprise and delight, last Sunday I received Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Eros” (1847). I do not know if this gem was the inspiration for Dabney 56 years ago. It does not matter. What matters is that Dabney’s dare to live lovingly was nothing new:

The sense of the world is short,—
Long and various the report,—
To love and be beloved;
Men and gods have not outlearned it;
And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,
’Tis not to be improved.

I am amused to think that scholar-poet Stuart might have taken a professor’s assignment to paraphrase a poem and used “Eros” as his original. In either case, whether we say there is “nothing of significance to add” or “’tis not to be improved,” both Stuart and Emerson have struck the proper tone for any major religious or humanist holiday.

Driving Happiness

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

Happiness is more like a car, less like a building.

I have written elsewhere that five modes of positive being are as good or better than happiness itself—

  • Goals—making progress towards a goal
  • Fit—having goals that build on who you are, not who you are not
  • Flow—having goals that are challenging, but not too much so
  • Altruism—having goals that entail service to others
  • Relationships—pursuing goals in a way that builds high quality relationships

Some would put these five elements, or some other similar assortment of happiness “ingredients,” into a hierarchical arrangement, much like a building with floors. According to these theorists, you must satisfy one element before you can proceed to the next, and so on, until you reach the highest element—the pinnacle of happiness.

This is not my approach. I consider each of the five elements effective at achieving a sense of subjective well-being in and of itself. Of course, if one engages in all five, or a combination of the five, the payoff would be greater.

Destination Management, 2008 CC BY 2.0

Destination Management, 2008, DD BY 2.0

Rather than thinking of these elements hierarchically, like a building with five floors, I suggest we think of them as a vehicle—car, train, bicycle, bus, airplane…. Every vehicle needs a destination—a goal. Without a destination, the vehicle lacks a purpose. Unless one uses the vehicle to make progress towards a goal, why have the vehicle?

Every vehicle needs fuel to power it to its destination. For me, the equivalent of fuel in this analogy is the degree to which a person’s strengths are engaged in pursuit of their goal—their “fit.” To the degree that one’s salient traits, abilities, values, experiences, and physical experiences are engaged, a person will be more motivated, more energized, in pursuit of their goal.

The other three elements are like adjustments we can make in pursuit of our goals. We achieve flow—that sense of being totally absorbed in the moment—by taking on goals that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If bored, increase the challenge of the goal. If frustrated, decrease the challenge or increase your skill. We achieve service in goal pursuit by choosing goals that have a positive impact on others. This could be achieved by a wide range of emphases—from relieving misery to entertaining others. We achieve relationship quality in goal pursuit by involving others in our goals in a way that allows others to be fulfilled by our goal pursuit as much as we are—sharing, intimacy, interdependence, and all that.

Where are you going? What fuel will you use to get there? How will it positively impact family, friends, customers, co-workers, and citizens at large? How will you avoid frustration and boredom? How will you build high quality relationships during the journey?

A Note on Chilling: One of my teammates vetted this piece yesterday, saying “Excellent blog. However, there’s nothing like just chilling out and not worrying about goals and such.” I agree. On the other hand, there’s no chilling out like an activity that is characterized by fit, flow, relationships, or altruism. Chill by engaging one of your salient strengths—for me, that would be something that employed my imagination, love of complexity and analysis, or passion for beauty, especially music. Chill by doing something that is neither boring nor frustrating, but in flow. I chill by reading, so don’t read boring and don’t read excess complexity. Chill by hanging with a friend or pet and furthering the relationship. Chill by visiting someone who needs attention—take a bucket of whiskey sours to someone who’s moving into a new house and have a drink with them. Fit, flow, relationships, and altruism are fine ways to chill!

Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.


One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

Leaving Stuff Behind

I’d like to leave more than a tombstone for folks to remember me by.

German-American psychologist Erik Erikson wrote of the importance of generativity—of leaving something for future generations to value and remember us by. Something tangible that affirms our life has meaning for others after all is said and done. Our legacy. Recent happiness research confirms that working towards leaving something positive for others to remember us by provides us with a positive emotional boost.

Tombstone William Allen, Image Historian, 2007 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tombstone, William Allen, Image Historian, 2007. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Summer is opportune for working on our legacy. Whether on vacation or just chilling in the shade, the time is ripe for thinking about, choosing, and beginning work on what we will leave for those after us to remember our values, idiosyncrasies, skills, and so forth. What are the elements of your legacy, and how far along are you in making it real and lasting? Just this week Michael Jordan has added another element to his—a $500,000 investment in literacy. Just last night I added an eight inch plank to the hull of my wooden model of the 1492 caravelle Santa Maria—certainly a more modest gift for my grandchildren, but nonetheless satisfying as a small way of being remembered (unless it gets crushed, of course!).

Just in case you’re not already engaged in building your legacy, here is a list of some well-known forms of legacy, and also some that perhaps you’ve not thought of as such:

  • Writing a book of any sort
  • Writing a family history and putting it in one’s home town library
  • Building a cradle or a doll house
  • Constructing a scrap book or photo album, whether on paper or digitally (I have 13 Power Point photo albums!)
  • Painting a portrait of a family member(s)—or having someone else paint/draw them
  • Endowing a chair in a university, symphony, or…
  • Founding a scholarship
  • Creating an extended family mail list and sharing it with everyone in the family
  • Writing a song or other piece of music
  • Collecting family recipes and publishing them (or recipes from your religious group, scout organization, book club, etc.)
  • Designing a garden for public viewing and nurturing it to life
  • Sculpting something
  • Interviewing (and recording and transcribing) everyone in your family or circle for possible use by you or someone else in writing a family history
  • Write a poem or story or song to be read (or sung) on special occasions—Thanksgiving, July 4, Bastille Day…
  • Creating a video documentary of your family or organization
  • Contributing money towards having something named after you or your family
  • Building a mountain cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Building a beach or lake cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Write and enact a law or policy that the next generation will attribute to you with pride
  • Make costumes, ornaments, or other craft collections that will benefit others
  • Endow in your family’s name a permanent summer camp scholarship for a youth who otherwise would not be able to attend camp
  • Keep a personal/family diary, such that others may read it after your time is up
  • Build a Little Free Library for your neighborhood (
  • Plan and build a sports or exercise arena of some sort—ball field, tennis court, and so forth
  • Through interviews and other media, collect stories from your family (or other organization) and write them up as an anthology. Start with the most senior members, and get as much detail as possible. Perhaps do group interviews, as in several cousins recalling stories about their parents/grandparents
  • Start a business or non-profit or social club that will continue indefinitely in association with your family or friends
  • Organize and start an annual family reunion
  • Build your family tree—consider using an online tool such as
  • Write your autobiography, or dictate it to a youth who needs a class, scouting, or other project (as in the Senior Project)
  • Do the taxidermy thing and create a stuffed wall mounting to look down on future generations
  • Design and make a set of clothes for your grandchild’s doll(s)
  • Get a book like The Big Book of Whittling and Woodcarving or The Foxfire Book and make toys, statues, games, pony tail holders, and so forth to leave with your family or friends.
  • Create your family medical history, and distribute it to family members so that they may use your information as a starter for their own medical histories to leave on file with their family doctor
  • Get your spit tested for DNA (23andMe, Family Tree DNA, etc.) and share with your family your/their ancestry
  • Prepare your will thoughtfully—my mother made a list of all her possessions and valued items, then had each of her seven children, in turn from oldest to youngest, select what they wished for their own upon her demise
  • Knit afghans or piece together quilts for those close to you and/or for those in need
  • Win trophies for competitions in your special field, whether a Pulitzer Prize or a neighborhood tennis ladder
  • Preserve your scouting or military uniform or wedding dress or christening gown as a wall mount
  • Write a script for a play or some kind of event that documents and celebrates the history and characters of your neighborhood—record it and write it up
  • Start a neighborhood festival—the North Bronx Jubilee, or some such
  • Have an exchange student and continue the relationship after their year is up
  • Record your children’s/grandchildren’s voices once a year from birth onward, so that they have a record of the evolution of how their voice has changed over time
  • Collect stories and anecdotes about a favorite family pet or farm animal, and prepare them as a book, scrapbook, audio file, Power Point presentation…
  • Organize and execute a neighborhood event that will continue after you’re gone—e.g. Will and Gertrude’s Annual Halloween Wiener Roast for Amity Avenue (or South Fork Creek rural area)
  • Finance someone’s education (university, trade school, apprenticeship, professional/graduate school) who might otherwise not be able to pursue such

To get the most satisfaction from creating your legacy, choose something that expresses one or more of your values (see The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work) and incorporates one or more of your Big Five personality traits (see The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work or The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22). And, to read more about how this fits into your overall happiness set point, read The Owner’s Manual for Happiness.

Pick one or more and get going! And enjoy the process. Leave more than a tombstone…

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (2. Solitude and Loneliness)

January 27, 2016 Leave a comment

All that glitters is not gold, and alone is not always lonely.

Last week I began a series on behaviors that are often mistaken for one another. Elsewhere I’ve called them “multi-source behaviors,” in the sense that one single behavior might originate in different psychological spaces. Last week we saw how fidgeting and restlessness could be interpreted on the one hand as evidence of impatience, but on the other as evidence of boredom. One must stay vigilant to the possibility of multiple meanings behind behavior and not always assume we know the meaning of a grimace, a smile, or a frown. A simple “What’s the meaning behind that frown?” can often prevent bad feelings and a trip down the wrong inferential path.

A commonly misperceived behavior is the state of being alone. All too often, Gregarious Groupies try to nudge Solitary Singles into joining them on the assumption that the Solitary Single is lonely. But, being alone does not necessarily entail loneliness. We are built differently. Some of us have high thresholds for the afferent and efferent nerves,

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent CC BY-SA 2.0

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent; CC BY-SA 2.0

such that the 105 decibels of sound at a football game may not phase us because we have a high threshold for noise, while those bombarding decibels would wear me down because of my low noise threshold. After the game, you’d be ready to party, and I’d be ready to be private. I would not be lonely, but quiet and (probably) alone, or at least with another quiet person.

I remember a couple from graduate school days in Chapel Hill. He had a lower sensory threshold, she, a higher. He read in the library most days, while she taught junior high school choral music. He would arrive home in the evenings not lonely from a day at his library study carrel way off the beaten path, but, in fact, mentally energized from a day of reading and thinking. She would get home eager to talk through her day with him, not in the least exhausted from the hustle and bustle of hormonal youth trying to harmonize. When she spied him opening a book shortly after getting home, it was “What do you have against people? Talk with me!” And this was met with his “What do you have against quiet? Get comfortable with yourself!” Over time they learned to respect each other’s differing traits—they’re still married after 50 years.

These two were extremes—extremely introverted and extremely extraverted, the one energized by solitude, and the other energized by society. Then there are folks like me—ambiverted—ready for society after a day of study, or ready for study after a day of society. I give out of society juice after being in the thick of the action for too long and must get quiet, which usually (but not necessarily) means being alone, or with my ambiverted partner, Jane. On the other hand, I give out of solitary juice after extended study sessions (mostly writing and reading), and am ready for some social stimulation.

Loneliness happens when a soul has run out of fuel for being alone and is ready for some action but finds none. Most of us manage our needs for solitude and society successfully. When we begin to feel lonely, as in having had enough solitude and are now ready for company, we know where to look. Reaching out for contact could be satisfied by playing with a loved pet at one extreme or going to visit family or friends at another. Often, the simplest cure for loneliness is an open-ended question. Sometimes when I fly, I am ready for solitude, and I blank out the persons sitting on either side as I read. Other times I have just emerged from extended solitude and am ready for society, so I ask one of my seatmates an open-ended question and hope that an engaging conversation ensues.

So the learning is to never assume you know a person’s mental state when you see them alone. Ask. Then either let them be alone, or engage them based on their response.