Aleks Krotoski is a social psychologist, broadcaster and journalist. She presents BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human.
Finding happiness in solitude.
“ENJOYING TIME ALONE IS MORE TO DO WITH BEING RESISTANT TO PEER PRESSURE”
Tis the season to hide in the loo at office Christmas parties. To avoid too much idle chitchat and loud music. To take a break from the pressure to drink, eat, and be merry. To have a moment in one’s own company. To be alone.
I am that person. But I wasn’t always. When I was younger, I was the classic extravert, always out, always big and brash, often wearing a silly wig and a loud pattern. I was occupied with a million things, and then once every three weeks I’d cancel my evening plans at the last minute and collapse face-first on my dining room table. Even then, I wasn’t really alone. I was asleep. The thing is, I didn’t hate being alone, I just wanted to do a lot of things. The world is an exciting place with many opportunities for distraction. Every once in a while, I’d disappear to the far north of Scotland or the Lake District by myself for a fortnight and write and hike and eat a lot of cream teas. But then I’d come back and the party would start again.
A major psychological approach to the modern pursuit of wellbeing is Self Determination Theory. It’s become a cornerstone of research since the early 2000s, and is used by theorists and clinicians to try to understand what proportions of work and life, sociability and aloneness we need for optimum mental health. And how well we cope with solitude has become an important consideration.
Feeling okay about being alone has often been associated with introversion – the argument has been that people who don’t choose to seek out others prefer their own company. That’s an assumption that’s been tested by Thuy-vy Nguyen and her colleagues and is currently being peer reviewed. The paper says that enjoying aloneness has more to do with being resistant to peer pressure, and feeling that your behaviour is aligned with your interests, rather than whether you’re extraverted or introverted.
This works only if you can choose it, rather than have it imposed upon you. In a study published in Gerontology in 2016, Theresa Pauly from the University of British Columbia and an international team of psychologists used a combination of biological indicators and psychological assessments to test the difference between being alone out of choice or not. They found that we get more anxious about solitude as we age, but we also increasingly appreciate and enjoy moments of aloneness too. And that makes sense. There’s a danger of social isolation as people get older, with the associated negative ramifications for physical and mental health. But choosing to have some silence to collect thoughts and clear the din? Yeah, I’ll have some of that.
Now, for people like me who do like to be around others and are happy with my inner voices, I can still experience welcome solitude without booking a silent retreat somewhere else. You don’t have to be physically alone to have that respite, according UCL’s Glòria DuràVilà and Gerard Leavey. Their 2017 article in Mental Health, Religion And Culture reported that contemplative cloistered nuns and monks who live communally avoid interacting with one another in order to achieve a ‘perfect closeness with God’. They’re not isolated; they’re choosing to feel alone out of their own volition.
We might seek to separate ourselves from the frenetic togetherness of a Christmas party. We might seek to be alone together in an always-connected world. But the important thing is to feel that we have chosen our solitude in whatever form it takes, so we can hear ourselves ever more clearly, and ultimately achieve optimum us.