Is Solitude Something You Enjoy or a Way of Avoiding Others?

Solitude that you want has nothing to do with loneliness.

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Why do you seek solitude? Do you spend time alone for positive reasons, such as because you like quiet or privacy, or because alone time sparks creativity or helps you stay in touch with your feelings? Or do you spend time alone, because you don’t usually enjoy the time you spend with other people? For example, you may feel anxious or uncomfortable when you are with others or regret something you said.

Your answer to the question of why you seek solitude can make all the difference in whether it's positive or negative for you to spend time alone, new research shows. In a study that will be published in January 2019 in the Journal of Adolescence (available online now), Professors Virginia Thomas of Wilmington College and Margarita Azmitia of the University of California at Santa Cruz developed a scale to measure two different motivations for solitude. They then administered the scale, along with a variety of measures of psychological health and well-being, to a sample of college students and a sample of high school students. Only the people who were spending time alone to avoid other people showed a somewhat worrisome profile. For example, people who feel especially uncomfortable around other people experience greater loneliness. In contrast, spending time alone because you enjoy it has nothing whatsoever to do with loneliness.

Two Motivations for Solitude

The professors asked the participants about 14 possible reasons for spending time alone. Each question started with, “When I spend time alone, I do so because…” Participants indicated how important each of the reasons was to them.

The positive reasons for spending time alone were:

  • I enjoy the quiet.
  • I value the privacy.
  • It sparks my creativity.
  • I feel energized when I spend time by myself.
  • It helps me stay in touch with my feelings.
  • It helps me gain insight into why I do the things I do.
  • Being alone helps me to get in touch with my spirituality.
  • I can engage in activities that really interest me.

The people-avoiding reasons for spending time alone were:

  • I feel anxious when I’m with others.
  • I feel uncomfortable when I’m with others.
  • I don’t feel liked when I’m with others.
  • I feel like I don’t belong when I’m with others.
  • I can’t be myself around others.
  • I regret things I say or do when I’m with others.

Why Your Motivation Matters

Loneliness: Perhaps the most important findings were about loneliness. Spending time alone for negative reasons (because time with others is unpleasant) was linked with greater loneliness. Spending time alone for positive reasons, though, had nothing whatsoever to do with loneliness. The correlation between spending time alone because you want to (you enjoy the quiet, you are more creative, etc.) and feeling lonely was about zero for both college students and high school students.

DepressionSpending time alone for negative reasons was also linked to greater feelings of depression. There was also a correlation with depression for the adolescents who liked their time alone, but that correlation was much smaller, and there was no correlation with depression for the emerging adults who liked their time alone. To explain why even solitude that is wanted can be (weakly) linked to depression for high school students, the authors point to other research suggesting that when adolescents are in a bad mood, they sometimes “seek solitude to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings.”

Extraversion: Unsurprisingly, the people who scored highest on the negative scale (spending time alone to avoid others) were the least extraverted. Interestingly, people who scored higher on the positive scale (spending time alone because they liked it) were no less likely to be extroverted than people who scored lower on that scale — the correlation was about zero for both the high school and the college students.

Positive relationships with others: Also unsurprisingly, people who are especially likely to spend time alone for negative reasons (to avoid others) are less likely to have positive relationships with others. For example, they disagree with the statement, “Most people see me as loving and affectionate.” Spending time alone for positive reasons has nothing to do with the quality of your relationships with others. The correlations are close to zero. That means that people who are especially likely to enjoy their time alone are no more or less likely to have positive relationships with others.

Knowing who you are: A scale measuring identity asked questions such as, “I’ve got a clear idea of what I want to be.” The same pattern of results emerged. The people who were spending time alone for negative reasons were less likely to know who they were. Spending time alone for positive reasons had no relationship to knowing who you are.

Special strengths of people who like their time alone

Only the college students were asked about personal growth and self-acceptance. An example of an item measuring personal growth was: “I have a sense that I have developed a lot as a person over time.” An example of a self-acceptance item was, “I like most aspects of my personality.” For both measures, the results were exactly the opposite for the people who spent time alone for positive reasons and those who spent time alone to avoid other people.

The college students who were especially likely to enjoy their time alone experienced more personal growth. The college students who were especially likely to spend time alone for negative reasons experienced less personal growth.

Who liked themselves more? The students who were especially likely to say that they enjoyed their time alone. Who liked themselves less? The students who were especially likely to say that they spend time alone, because the time they spend with others is unpleasant.

What the Results Do and Do Not Mean

The study is based on correlations and cannot tell us anything definitive about causality. For example, we don’t know whether people who like their time alone experience more personal growth and feel better about themselves because they like their time alone. Maybe it’s just the opposite — people who experience more personal growth and feel better about themselves are more likely to enjoy their time alone. Or maybe something else entirely is going on.

Similarly, and importantly, just because there are some worrisome results for people who spend time alone to avoid other people does not mean that they are doing the wrong thing. Maybe if they forced themselves to spend more time with other people, they would feel even lonelier and more depressed. What is happening could be different for different people. For example, maybe some adolescents and emerging adults feel uncomfortable with other people, because they are rejected for who they really are. Anything from their personal style to their sexual orientation could elicit negative reactions from people who are not open-minded.

We should not jump to conclusions about people who spend a lot of time alone. Many of them get a lot out of their solitude and are not experiencing the loneliness or depression that is currently the cause of so much concern.

The findings from this study build on other research I’ve described in “Why 5 types of people may withdraw from social life,” “The badass personalities of people who like being alone,” “Single people aren’t to blame for the loneliness epidemic,” and “Alone: the badass psychology of people who like being alone.” We shouldn’t be scared of the people who like their time alone, and we should not be worried about them either. We should try to understand what solitude means to each of the individuals experiencing it.

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