Aleks Krotoski

Aleks Krotoski is a so­cial psy­chol­o­gist, broad­caster and jour­nal­ist. She presents BBC Ra­dio 4’s Dig­i­tal Hu­man.

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

Find­ing hap­pi­ness in soli­tude.


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.

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