In a 1955 LIFE magazine profile of Greta Garbo, titled “The Braveness to Be Herself: In Private Affairs or in Public, Garbo Ignores Others’ Opinions,” the movie icon—who had become a highly prized trophy for paparazzi photographers by the mid-1950s—tried to set the record straight. In this article, Garbo is quoted as saying, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.” At the peak of her career, she'd abruptly retired from film-making in an attempt to escape Hollywood's vapidness.
Unfortunately, Greta Garbo’s candidness about wanting to be left alone made her pursuit of “self-determined solitude” (SDS) all the more difficult. Paparazzi hounded Garbo like prey throughout her post-movie-star life. Some of the most legendary paparazzo snapshots of all time are of the former screen goddess trying to blend in on busy Manhattan streets or trying in vain to elude zoom lenses by taking secluded walks in nature or swimming in the ocean.
Garbo presumably knew that solitude was beneficial to her psychological well-being and spiritual renewal. That said, there is often stigma attached to wanting to spend time alone. This is especially true during adolescence and young adulthood, when people are subdivided into various cliques that comprise “in-groups,” “out-groups,” and so-called “loners.”
Most middle-school and high-school students want to fit in. I know from firsthand experience that the sense of perceived social isolation and loneliness triggered by being ostracized or excluded by your classmates can be psychologically devastating. However, some people genuinely enjoy spending time alone and don’t equate solitude with loneliness.
As the parent of an only child who is currently in the sixth grade, I’m continually trying to assess how my daughter feels about fitting in with different social cliques and her amounts of "alone time."
Until a few days ago, my line of questioning about how my tween contemplates solitude didn't have much rhyme or reason. But earlier this week, I stumbled on a new study, “Motivation Matters: Development and Validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale—Short Form (MSS-SF),” that was recently published in the Journal of Adolescence. I decided to casually share this 14-item "solitude" survey with my daughter to see how she’d respond and recommend that other parents do the same.
What Is the Motivation for Solitude Scale?
In 2006, Cara Nicol published the original Motivation for Solitude Scale (MSS). The MSS was a 56-item questionnaire designed to measure varying degrees of "self-determined solitude" (SDS) and "not self-determined solitude" (NSDS) on a four-point scale. The prompt question for MSS survey takers: "When I spend time alone, I do so because…” For their most recent survey, Thomas and Azmitia used a truncated version that consisted of a 14-item questionnaire.
The 14-item survey (Thomas & Azmitia, 2019) below shares the same prompt as the original, full-length MSS: "When I spend time alone, I do so because..."
- It sparks my creativity.
- I enjoy the quiet.
- Being alone helps me get in touch with my spirituality.
- It helps me stay in touch with my feelings.
- I value the privacy.
- I can engage in activities that really interest me.
- It helps me gain insight into why I do the things I do.
- I feel energized when I spend time by myself.
- I feel anxious when I'm with others.
- I don't feel liked when I'm with others.
- I can't be myself around others.
- I regret things I say or do when I'm with others.
- I feel uncomfortable when I'm with others.
- I feel like I don't belong when I'm with others.
How would you respond to each question above on a continuum between "not at all important or relevant" to "extremely important and relevant"?
While going over these 14 MSS items with my 11-year-old daughter, I shared personal experiences about how my own relationship with solitude vacillated throughout childhood and adolescence. Thankfully, at this stage of life, my adolescent kid responded most strongly to spending time alone as a way to "spark creativity," "stay in touch with feelings," and "engage in activities" that really interest her. My daughter did admit that sometimes she regretted "things I say or do with others."
What's the Main Takeaway?
The researchers found that people who choose to spend time alone for mostly positive, "self-determined" reasons are at a much lower risk of viewing solitude as “social isolation” or suffering the negative consequences associated with feelings of loneliness than those who seek alone time for the predominately "not self-determined" reasons reflected in questions 9-14 in the survey above.
When it comes to motivations for seeking solitude, the key factors in the equation are choice and an individual's motivation for wanting to be alone. Those who take a Garbo-like approach and choose to be "let alone" probably know what’s best for their psychological, creative, and spiritual well-being. Conversely, those who have negative motivations for seeking solitude (e.g., social anxiety) often find themselves isolated in ways that are linked to loneliness, dysphoria, or depression.
Depending on someone’s reasons for wanting to be alone, the motivation for solitude scale shows that alone time can have countless potential upsides. Seeking solitude is not necessarily a red flag that something is wrong. According to the researchers, choosing solitude can help people flourish by facilitating self-acceptance, personal growth, creative expression, and spiritual connectedness.
"Solitude has gotten a lot of bad press, especially for adolescents who get labeled as social misfits or lonely," senior author Margarita Azmitia, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement. "There's a stigma for kids who spend time alone. They're considered lacking in social skills, or they get labeled 'loners.’ It's beneficial to know when you need to be alone and when you need to be with others. This study quantifies the benefits of solitude and distinguishes it from the costs of loneliness or isolation."
Virginia Thomas, who is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Wilmington College, conducted this research when she was a graduate student in Azmitia's lab at UCSC. "We got clear results that are pretty reliable indicators of adaptive versus maladaptive solitude," she said in a statement. "These results increase our awareness that being alone can be restorative and a positive thing. The question is how to be alone without feeling like we're missing out. For many people, solitude is like exercising a muscle they've never used. You have to develop it, flex it, and learn to use time alone to your benefit."
Do Introverts and Extroverts Respond Differently to Solitude?
"Solitude serves the same positive functions in introverts and extroverts. Introverts just need more of it," Thomas said. "Our culture is pretty biased toward extroversion. When we see any sign of shyness or introversion in children, we worry they won't be popular. But we overlook plenty of well-adjusted teens and young adults who are perfectly happy when alone, and who benefit from their solitude." The researchers encourage parents to appreciate the often undervalued potential benefits of alone time for their children.
"We need to build our cultural understanding that we don't have to be social all the time. Parents can help their children understand that being alone isn't bad. It doesn't mean nobody likes you," Azmitia concluded.
As an unabashed introvert, loner, and solitude seeker—who also loves kaffeeklatsches, karaoke, and has occasional uncontrollable bursts of gregariousness—I can corroborate these findings and concur with the researchers' conclusions.
Update: Here's a follow-up post, "3 Things That Helped Me Learn to Love Solitude."
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Virginia Thomas & Margarita Azmitia. "Motivation Matters: Development and Validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale – Short Form (MSS-SF)" Journal of Adolescence (First available online: November 23, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2018.11.004