Long life and happiness isn’t just for extroverts

Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (possibly the most comprehensive longitudinal study of its kind) gave a TED talk on what leads to happiness and good health in life. Probably no one would be surprised to hear that the answer is not “money and loads of stuff” but good relationships. 

I generally armour up psychologically when I hear this because it’s yet another opportunity for the more gregarious and extroverted to lambast the introverted and solitude-seeking amongst us to “get out more”. 

But I noticed one important phrase that I am quite sure will get overlooked in the general reporting of such research, and it is key. Here’s the paragraph:

And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

(The emphasis is mine.)

The element of choice in being alone is crucial. If someone wants to be alone, they are not lonely, they are choosing to spend time in a way they enjoy. They should therefore not be told to spend their time in a different way just because their socially-oriented friends find it uncomfortable or are offended by their desire to be on their own rather than with others. 

Many people regard being alone as a fate that, if not worse than death, entirely too closely approaches it. I have always, even as a young child, failed to understand this although at least now I understand there are differences in people’s desire for solitude and that I err strongly in favour of it. 

I used to be puzzled by the use of solitary confinement in prisons as a punishment. I thought that if ever I ended up in prison I’d request to be sent to solitary as it would be vastly preferable, in my mind, to being locked up with hundreds of others. 

Technically there’s no difference between solitary confinement and solitude (assuming physical conditions are comparable). The difference in the experience arises principally from whether it is chosen or imposed. The experiences of prisoners who suffer mental distress and hallucinations are not dissimilar to the mystic experiences and visions of solitaries who enter into solitude in pursuit of religious insight. This is not to say the experiences are therefore one and the same and if prisoners just changed their minds they’d be fine. It is to underscore how essential choice is in shaping our experiences. If we want solitude, it is a positive and enriching experience. If we don’t, it is isolating and damaging. 

The same can probably be said of social interaction. It’s interesting that no one has studied this (to my knowledge, which isn’t that of an expert). I’d love to read studies on the damaging effect of too much exposure to social interaction on introverted people. 

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Enjoying things in spite of myself

I went to a wedding on Saturday night. I was touched to have been invited as the friendship was one where I wasn’t  entirely sure how far it extended beyond the particular context where we see each other. There’s an invisible boundary between our public and private lives and it’s an act of faith and trust to invite a friend across that boundary. 

Because this was an invitation that broke through the boundary, I was a little anxious about going as I wasn’t sure I would know many people there since this was a new circle to be invited into. And sure enough when I arrived I didn’t know anyone, although I recognised a few faces. 

This is in fact my nightmare scenario: being in a roomful of people where I know no one. I needn’t have worried. I bit the bullet, introduced myself to someone who looked approachable and found myself chatting to several people before too long. 

The wedding was lovely, my friend looked both stunning and very happy, and I had a really enjoyable evening with the people I shared a table with. I had  fascinating conversations and we got into  interesting topics – philosophy, political systems (two at the table were former Cabinet ministers and one had been a UN representative), poetry, history. We talked about substantial things, ideas and theories, and the evening flew by. 

In truth, I had not been looking forward to the wedding at all. I was unsure about my outfit (turns out it was perfectly up to the job), I was unsure about lasting an evening with people I didn’t know, I was unsure about my ability to make conversation with people I might have nothing in common with; in short, I was dreading it. I was seeing it as an ordeal to be endured. I even (briefly) considered bailing. 

To be clear, my dread was all about me and the risk that I would fail to rise to the occasion. If I have a dull time, I blame myself for not being interesting enough, for not having “normal” interests and hobbies that other people share. 

I’m glad I didn’t let my dread stop me. Of course, I’m worn out today, but at least I can say it was worth it. 

Self discipline is training

training

Most people recognise that the only way world class athletes get to be world class athletes is through training. They train their bodies to do what’s required, and that training is a day in, day out, comprehensive, life-dominating activity. What they eat and drink, when they eat and drink, how much sleep they get, what specific skills they practice and repeat to improve, all are conscious choices with a goal in mind.

I hadn’t really thought about living well alone in this way until I read in A Book of Silence about the ascetic disciplines of the early Desert Fathers, the hermits who lived in the desert in order to pursue a life focused on God.

Monks & nuns, then and now, see their way of life as a discipline that requires constant practice. In fact, any way of life, intentional or not, is ultimately the result of practice. It’s just that half the time we’re not aware of what it is we’re practising, so we’re not necessarily aligning what we’re doing daily with the kind of life we want to lead.

Self discipline sounds much more appealing (to me at any rate) when framed in terms of athletic training. What’s the goal? It’s not an Olympic medal in self denial, but it might be something like “When I retire, I want to be healthy, active, engaged in interests, and financially independent.” If that is so, my daily routines and choices become a question of whether or not they will help me achieve my goal.

Retirement is probably still a few too many years away to feel like an immediate enough goal, but the principle is the same: how do I want my life to look a year from now? A month from now? By the time I go to bed tonight?

As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Self discipline is about spending our days practising the life we want to have lived.

 

Do what you can

The trouble with adding a positive adjective to your blog title is that it readily makes a hypocrit of you. I’m living and I’m alone, but not well.

I had a bad week. I have been extremely tired, and had to spend three days in bed. I’ve struggled to get up in the mornings and struggled to keep going during the day. On Friday I walked into town to get my routine blood tests and was so tired I needed to rest on a park bench on the way back.

I’m not sure what to do to turn things around either. But as I lay there feeling despondent I was reminded of those wise words someone said to me long ago : “Do what you can, and not what you can’t.”

What I could do was have a hot bath with Epsom salts. For all that I am tired, I’ve not felt relaxed, and the bath left me feeling wonderfully relaxed. I had a very good sleep, unbroken for once, and I was able to get out of bed and do necessities like laundry.

Sometimes, lowering expectations is the way to go. If “living well” means doing what I can, perhaps I’m not so hypocritical after all.

Silence and aloneness

One of my current favourite books is Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. A young work colleague and I were discussing what we were reading and she was interested to hear such a book existed.  

She described to me the three day “solo” she did on Outward Bound a few years earlier that she had found challenging and more enjoyable than she expected. She said it was the longest time she’d spent not speaking to anyone and was proud that she could go that long, but was not in any hurry to repeat it. 

It made me reflect on my own experiences of silence. It’s not unusual for me to spend a weekend, from Friday night to Monday morning, not speaking to anyone. But this isn’t really silence, in that I listen to podcasts, watch TV, and of course am surrounded by sounds of people: voices in the street, doors slamming, cars driving past etc. I may not be speaking but I don’t feel encased in silence either. 

When I had the beach house, I could go three weeks without speaking to a soul. There was next to nothing in the way of traffic noise (rush hour consisted of three cars driving by on their commute into the city an hour and a half away). There were no people around. I would go for my daily walk and encounter no one, not even a passing car. There was just birdsong, and the soft and rhythmic thump of the waves on the beach. And the chatter in my head. 

Years ago when I was doing my doctorate I did two summers of field work. In the first, over a period of 2 months I was entirely alone for a week to 10 days at a time, living in a tent in the forest at about 2500m. I was collecting samples during the day and rising and sleeping with the sun. There were plenty of sounds around me but no human voices. It was true solitude and I loved it. The silence was comfortable and even welcoming. Human noises would have been cause for alarm. 

Several years prior I had spent two weeks on a tramping trip in the arctic, on Baffin Island. I wasn’t alone, but I experienced a different kind of silence there. The huge expanses of ice and snow, and the sound of the wind, combined to create an absorbent silence, the kind of silence that swallows sound. Shouting made no difference. The wind snatched away sound, or it sank into the snow. 

What I came to realise is that I enjoy silence. I prefer it. Extreme silence, like that on Baffin Island, is undoubtedly challenging, but for me the other experiences of silence have been and continue to be enjoyable and even necessary. 

Silence, be it an absence of conversation or an absence of human sounds altogether, seems to be a major challenge for many people and is the most cited obstacle to living alone that I hear. For me, silence is a reason to live alone. It is restorative. It lets me breathe freely.