The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Credit: Janine Navalta

I remember running at Pottruck Health and Fitness Center once in the snowy winter and turning my head slightly to the left to admire an ordered line of beautiful runners. Amid athletes, newcomers, adults, men, and women, I noticed a common denominator: Everyone was wearing AirPods while glued to a screen. Everyone but me. Why do we maximize every valuable moment of downtime for mindless entertainment, leaving no space for mind wandering? Why do we value overstimulating distractions over contemplative introspections?

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with an energizing song or a cathartic movie; I may be atypical for finding solitude on the treadmill inherently fun. Yet, there must be some truth in my alienation. We are all simply stimulation junkies, victims of a hedonistic culture valuing consumption at the expense of reflection and entertainment at the expense of solitude. Yes, perhaps I am extreme, but you do not need to go far to realize this is Penn, where people only talk, work, or consume. Why do we not shut up, sit down, and just exist?

I suspect that part of the need for constant entertainment stems from the need for constant achievement: Penn students exist contingent on their accomplishments. If I take away your doing from you, what is left? Who are you without your goals? The harsh truth is that the answer for many of us is simply … nothing. And so we do. We listen to the morning podcast, music between classes, Netflix at Pottruck, and TikTok at night. Yet, this is only short-term crisis management. The root cause may well be discomfort.

Most of you seem scared to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of being left alone with nothing but yourself, not the least because that requires vulnerability and touch with your kaleidoscopic self. At worst, you are incapable of dealing with it. It is no surprise then that all you do is try and suppress it. There is no better distraction than stimulation, and Penn is, by definition, a restless machine handing you stimuli.

Once again, I do not hope to be extreme or to generalize. However, I argue that it is vital to learn how to deal with simply being by yourself, especially given that the number of hours you spend alone increases proportionally with age, with a scary jump after graduation. If you think it sounds disheartening, let me be pragmatic: Note that solitary time does not correlate with feelings of loneliness until a person spends 75% or more of their waking time alone. So is the solution to isolate yourself and become a monk in Thailand? No (or maybe). 

As essayist William Deresiewicz puts it, “Solitude is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom.” I do not think loneliness is a panacea. If you are lonely, please seek company and social time. If you are not lonely, what I advocate for is making time for genuine solitude. I simply ask to learn the difference between purposeful and purposeless alone time and recognize the value in both. They are not exclusive — they are complementary.

Find the balance that works for you. What helps me is to find random moments in my day to just exist. Lunch alone? I mindfully eat staring out the closest window. Class finishes earlier than expected? I sit down in a chair for a few minutes and do absolutely nothing. I am still finding my way, but I now think twice before judging the guy sitting alone at Class of 1920 Commons or instinctively pulling out my headphones to overfill every hole in my life with videos and random phone calls.

The point is, I am profoundly scared that a senior can graduate next month summa cum laude with an Ivy League degree, and yet know nothing about themselves and how to be at peace. Penn can teach you multivariable calculus and discounted cash flow analyses, but only you can teach yourself introspection and dare to stop the grind for a second.

What matters at the end of the day is how you feel when you are about to go to bed after your CIS classes, lunches at Pret, and extracurriculars in Huntsman Hall, and you are turning off the light. At that moment, can you sit down purposelessly and stare at the ceiling, amazingly grateful for life? Everyone has the right and potential to feel that, thus I worry for those who instead feel like there is something wrong and suppress it, close their eyes, and endlessly repeat. When you experience this level of peace with yourself and the world, you realize that it is priceless, and your only wish is for everyone around you to experience it too.

Credit: Sydney Curran

FRANCESCO SALAMONE is a Wharton sophomore from Palermo, Italy. His email address is