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.