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Is Comfort in Solitude a Sign of Emotional Maturity?

The capacity to be alone is an under-appreciated aspect of well-being.

Key points

  • The ability to form secure relationships is not the only sign of emotional maturity.
  • The capacity to be alone is valuable and can contribute to overall well-being.
  • Solitude offers many benefits, including authenticity and autonomy.

“In the supreme importance that we place on intimate relationships, have we overlooked the deep, sustaining power of solitude in human life?” That question was posed by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr in 1988 in one of the most important books on solitude, Solitude: A Return to Self. His answer was yes.

Storr observed that “the capacity to form attachments…is considered evidence of emotional maturity.” Contemporary scholars would probably revise that a bit, noting that the capacity to form secure attachments is what matters, and they would focus on well-being rather than emotional maturity. Either way, what Storr has to say about that is significant: We shouldn’t just be looking at secure attachments as evidence of emotional maturity; we should also recognize the value of the capacity to be alone.

Even people who have secure and satisfying relationships with other people may not have a completely meaningful and fulfilling life if they do not have more than that. The life of the mind matters too. So do our interests and perhaps our work. As Storr put it, “Intimate attachments are a hub around which a person’s life revolves, not necessarily the hub.”

The Significance of Solitude to the Single at Heart

Researchers who take the perspective of romantically coupled people when they study singles will often focus on the presumed deficiencies of single people, such as loneliness and attachment issues. I like to acknowledge and study the people who flourish when single, the single at heart.

I have found that the valuing of alone time is one of the most important characteristics of the single at heart. It is one of their great strengths. Because they cherish the time they have to themselves rather than fearing it, they are especially unlikely to feel lonely. Their comfort in solitude got them through the pandemic, and it serves them well as they head into later life.

They are very unlikely to become the caricature of a sad, lonely, and isolated old person. They won’t be isolated because savoring solitude is not inconsistent with enjoying time with others. Single people in general (and not just the single at heart) are more connected to more different people.

Research on the Benefits of Solitude

For decades, researchers have been preoccupied with the study of loneliness. More recently, scholars have been turning their attention to solitude and the potential benefits it offers to people who are drawn to it for positive reasons (and not, for example, because they have been ostracized or feel socially anxious).

An important book on the topic, Solitude: The Science and Power of Being Alone, has just been published. Authors Netta Weinstein, Heather Hansen, and Thuy-vy T. Nguyen have conducted some of the most insightful theorizing and research on solitude, and they bring together their work and other contributions in their book.

Two of the key powers of solitude, Weinstein and her colleagues have found, are authenticity and autonomy. Solitude offers the potential for people to be who they really are (authenticity) and do what they want to do (autonomy). There are other potential benefits, too, especially for those who enjoy their time alone. They include the opportunity for reflection, for rest, relaxation, and renewal, for enrichment and creativity, and for peak experiences and the good life.

Emotional Maturity and Well-Being

When people who are single at heart tell their life stories, they describe how much they value their freedom and autonomy, their solitude, and living authentically. Some note that solitude is important to their sociability; when they have had their full measure of solitude, they are more likely to enjoy their interactions with other people.

The stories of people who embrace and enjoy their single lives are not about loneliness or insecurity; they are about emotional maturity and well-being.

More from Bella DePaulo Ph.D.
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