I recently achieved a dream I never quite thought I would reach: I now live alone in New York City. My reasons are complicated and numerous, but they boil down to the simple idea that hell is other people, especially when you all share a bathroom.
This was by no means cheap. My new place is a fairly small studio, and the upfront costs of moving there will keep me in the hole for a while—but I knew that going in, and still really, really wanted to be on my own.
Homeownership is not something most people my age can even fathom, so going solo has become the holy Grail of living situations, especially in expensive big cities. If you want to survive in New York and have enough money to enjoy all it has to offer, you should probably be living in a 12-person Bushwick loft named Camp True Love, inside someone's dorm room closet, or under your desk.
But for me, existing in a city where you're either crammed into a subway car, rubbing elbows with coworkers in a germ-filled "open office," or being jostled while walking down crowded streets necessitates having at least some sort of sanctuary. And I'm willing to pay for that privilege.
And apparently, I'm not alone in thinking that. In the book Going Solo, sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote that in 1950, fewer than 10 percent of American households were single people living alone, and that the phenomenon existed mostly among "migrant men" in the empty expanses of the West. Contrast that to 2012, when half of Manhattan's households consisted of just one person.
Although one Finnish study released the same year as Klinenberg's book suggested that people living alone tend to be more depressed, the NYU professor counters that he found those people to be more actively engaged in civics and ultimately more connected to other people through spending time at cafes or bars, or through use of social media.
And although the number of people living alone keeps going up, the idea of solitude as a path to self-actualization is far from new. It stretches at least as far back as Henry David Thoreau, perhaps the first American to not just move into his own place but also make sure everyone knew how great he was doing.
"The point of being alone isn't to retreat from the rest of the world, it's to figure out who you are and where you wanna go in your life," Klinenberg told me. "That's certainly the way that Emerson and Thoreau thought about it. These days the thing you have to remember is that living alone doesn't mean being alone."
Thoreau didn't have to deal with a housing shortage and rising rents, though. Today, like the guy who lived in a literal wooden box in San Francisco, you have to make some sacrifices to reach this milestone of early adulthood. For instance, I don't have a freezer. Or an oven. Technically, I have enough space to put a couch, but if I did I wouldn't be able to take a step without vaulting over furniture. Although I'm currently fine with the amount of space I have, I do worry that over a long enough timeline, a sort of cabin fever will set in.
Dak Kopec, an environmental psychologist at Boston Architectural College, said that the easiest way to prevent that from happening is to make my at-home recreational strategies as seamless as possible. For example, having to go through multiple steps to achieve a desired outcome is bad, like attaching and detaching cords.
That seems kind of hard to avoid in a very small apartment that has exactly one outlet that's not above a sink. But Kopec said the key was in the cords, and insisted that I'd need to find a way to deal with the clusterfuck that is the power strip under my desk, or that I change up the music that I listen to in order to give the disarray a positive connotation.
"For techno people, the cords have meaning, so the visual effects are lower than to a person with whom the cords have less meaning," he explained. "Less meaning means greater effects of stimulation within the field. In the micro apartment, the goal is to reduce the levels of stimulation in the field by ensuring that all the images there have meanings that are positive."
In other words, if your apartment looks like shit, you will feel like shit.
But while always having the TV plugged in will allegedly help my mental health, it's only been about a month and I've already noticed myself starting to talk to the screen, which doesn't seem good. A New York Times article pegged to Klinenberg's book mentions a woman named Amy who started watching shows while running on a treadmill and speaking to herself in French as a result of living alone. I wouldn't mind learning French, but the article also includes the harrowing story of a bro named Chad, who says that whenever his fiancee goes out of town he starts drinking champagne in the shower at 8 AM, playing Madden for hours, and only subsisting on French bread pizza.
Roommates (or fiancees) seem to exert a normalizing influence: You can't really go full Chad if there's a danger that someone will walk in on you at any time. After enough time on my own, will I become an eccentric with names for the voices in my head? Will I acquire a deeply ingrained weirdness that might prevent me from ever cohabitating again?
"I don't think so," says Klinenberg. "I certainly don't know of any cut-off points. Living alone is an expensive luxury in a celebrity city like New York. My guess is that you're just experiencing some of the luxuries of your domestic liberation and that if you find yourself with roommates or living with a partner sometime soon, you're gonna be just fine. There's no reason why living alone for a long time would make it hard for you to live with someone else in the future."
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