The company of one

nps marmot2.jpg

When his company established a virtual office several years ago, my friend Guy had a hard time adjusting. He sells complicated software for a global telecom company, a technical job that also requires people skills. Guy likes to go to an office. He likes to be among the people who communicate in the impenetrable argot no one outside of their professional tribe can understand. He's easily distracted and not particularly well-organized, so going to an office with others every day enabled him to be a more disciplined, productive worker.

Guy is like a lot of people these days, struggling with the virus-inducing social distance we are all expected to maintain. For them, not going to work, not eating out, not coaching the soccer team is a hardship. For them, seven days of home lockdown is torture.

For me, it's Tuesday.

I'm lucky. I'm healthy, I have plenty of toilet paper and I have lived alone, working from home, for much of my adult life. I know how to self-isolate because it's what I've always done.

It's difficult for people less solitary than I to recalculate their personal GPS in order to stay in one place, keeping company with only themselves or their families. They're not necessarily bored. They don't necessarily lack initiative, imagination or cluttered closets yearning for a Marie Kondo assault. They're just human.

We are social animals who crawled out of the primordial ooze and into the SoulCycle class at Equinox. Research overwhelmingly concludes that people with strong social networks and family relations generally have better health and longer lives. According to studies by the National Institutes of Health, "Humans need others to survive. Regardless of one's sex, country or culture of origin, age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival. The evidence supporting this contention is unequivocal."

Most people I know spend more time holding their phones than the hand of their child. But they still connect. They text, they FaceTime, they Zoom. Sometimes they even dial a number and talk to each other. But whether these close, personal device relationships are born of love, addiction or convenience, they are remote, and our species is hard-wired to connect in shared physical space.

Our animal friends represent a broader social spectrum, but even the loners must physically connect to procreate and successfully raise their young. The animal kingdom, however, is not a binary realm. Some animals can switch the in-person imperative on and off as circumstances dictate. There are lone tigers, there are pack wolves and there are marmots.

As explained a few years ago on an NPR podcast, marmots are "socially flexible" animals. Basically, marmots are honkin' big ground squirrels that typically live alone, but will join a group if their habitat shrinks or their population soars, and nature propels them into communal living because it serves that discrete society best.

One research team spent many years studying marmots who lived alone, who lived in colonies and who moved between both situations. On average, the marmots who spent more time alone lived significantly longer than those who spent more time together.

The scientists posited a couple of reasons why 1 was not just the loneliest number, but also the longest-lived:

1. Snoring marmots awaken their hibernating roommates (I'm not making this up). Once a hibernator wakes up, it's difficult for that critter to resume slumber, and during winter, food is scarce. Ergo: sleep, and live; wake, and starve.

2. Communal living invites the efficient transmission of disease.

COVID-19, anyone?

Sure, I miss schmoozing at the bar with friends, sipping an icy cold Hendrick's and dissing the carnival barker who occupies the White House. But I'm good at solitaire. My advice?

Become one with your inner marmot.

Photo: National Park Service

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