Why You Want to Be Alone and Why That Matters

Even if you are alone by choice, the reasons for being alone are significant.

Posted Dec 12, 2019

Are you one of those people who likes spending time alone? If so, you probably already know that there are some people who will stigmatize you for it. They think you are alone because you are anxious around other people and just don’t have very positive relationships with humans. They assume you are lonely and depressed.

That’s been the prevailing storyline about spending time alone for far too long. More recently, scholars are increasingly recognizing and documenting the value of solitude. They believe that spending time alone can be good for creativity, self-insight, self-development, relaxation, and spirituality.

One of the most important determinants of whether time alone is a good experience or a fraught one is whether you choose to be alone. If you are spending time alone because that’s what you want, then that will probably be a psychologically healthy experience. If instead you are home alone feeling despondent because you really want to be with other people, that’s much more problematic.

As important as that distinction is, some scholars believe it is not enough. Even people who choose to be alone, they point out, can do so for different reasons. Some reasons for being alone are likely to be indicative of good psychological health, while others are more likely to spell trouble.

Different Reasons for Being Alone

The social scientists Virginia Thomas and Margarita Azmitia tested their predictions about the importance of different kinds of reasons for being alone in research that was published in the Journal of Adolescence in 2019. They created a short form of a scale measuring people’s motivation for solitude and administered it to 176 adolescents (high school students, average age of 16) and 258 young adults (college students, ages 18-25).

In the Motivation for Solitude Scale, participants begin with the prompt, “When I spend time alone, I do so because…” and then indicate the importance of each of 14 reasons. Items from the two categories of reasons were all mixed together when participants answered the survey. I’ve separated them so you can see the differences.

Examples of the positive (intrinsically motivated) reasons for spending time alone:

  • I enjoy the quiet.
  • I can engage in activities that really interest me.
  • I value the privacy.
  • It helps me stay in touch with my feelings.
  • Being alone helps me get in touch with my spirituality.

Examples of the negative (extrinsically motivated) reasons for spending time alone:

  • 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.

To see whether the negative reasons for being alone really were associated with painful experiences or perceived inadequacies, the researchers included relevant measures such as:

  • Loneliness (e.g., “I feel left out.”)
  • Depression (e.g., In the past week, “I felt that I could not shake off the blues even with help from my family or friends.”)
  • Social anxiety (e.g., experiencing fear or anxiety while “talking with people you don’t know very well.”)

Measures of positive experiences were included, too. The survey administered to the young adults included all of the following measures; the adolescents answered only some of them.

  • Personal growth (e.g., “I have a sense that I have developed a lot as a person over time.”)
  • Self-acceptance (e.g., “I like most aspects of my personality.”)
  • Positive relationships with others (e.g., “Most people see me as loving and affectionate.”)
  • Identity (e.g., “I’ve got a clear idea of what I want to be.”)
  • Autonomy (e.g., “Being happy with myself is more important to me than having others approve of me.”)
  • Mastery (e.g., “I am quite good at managing the many responsibilities of my daily life.”)
  • Purpose (e.g., “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality.”)

The Results

As the researchers had predicted, the results were very different for the people who spent time alone for positive reasons compared to those who did so for negative reasons.

People who are alone for positive reasons have a profile that is almost entirely positive or neutral. Overall, for both the adolescents and the young adults, spending time alone for positive reasons had essentially nothing to do with loneliness. The correlation between loneliness and wanting to be alone for positive reasons was close to zero. For the young adults, spending time alone for positive reasons also had nothing to do with social anxiety or depression.

The social anxiety measure was not included in the survey administered to the adolescents. There was one negative finding for the adolescents who chose to be alone for positive reasons: They were slightly more likely to be depressed. (The correlation was .17, compared to .58 for the adolescents who were alone for negative reasons.)

The authors speculated that “low mood may drive adolescents to seek solitude to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings.” They point to other research showing that over time, adolescents who spend time alone by choice feel less depressed. Perhaps feeling down motivates some adolescents to spend time alone, and they use that time effectively to regulate their mood.

For the young adults, spending time alone for positive reasons was linked to some healthy psychological experiences. They were more self-accepting and they developed more over time. (The measures of self-acceptance and personal growth were not included in the surveys administered to the adolescents.)

People who were alone for negative reasons had a more worrisome profile. The results were troubling for both the adolescents and the young adults who chose to be alone for negative reasons. They were more likely to experience loneliness and depression. In the group of young adults, who also answered questions about anxiety, they were also more socially anxious.

The people who were alone for negative reasons were especially unlikely to have the other positive experiences. They were much less likely to have positive relationships with other people or to have a clear idea of who they want to be. They scored low on autonomy, too.

Only the young adults were asked about self-acceptance, personal growth, mastery, or purpose. Those who spend time alone for more negative reasons scored lower on all of those positive experiences.

Other findings: A measure of extraversion was also included. Among both the adolescents and the young adults, those whose solitude was intrinsically motivated were no more or less likely to be extraverted than people who scored low on positive reasons for being alone.

It was different for those with negative reasons. Both the adolescents and the young adults who were alone for negative reasons were less likely to be extraverted.

Finally, wanting to spend time alone for positive reasons wasn’t completely separate from wanting to spend time alone for negative reasons. There was a small correlation between the two. Some people want to be alone for both kinds of reasons.

Conclusion: Both Perspectives May Capture a Bit of the Truth

First, a word of caution: This research was correlational. It does not tell us, for example, whether depression causes people to want to spend time alone for negative reasons, or whether the reverse is true, or whether some other factor causes people to be depressed and to want to spend time alone for negative reasons.

With that in mind, the results offer some insight into why some people worry about those who spend a lot of time alone. Solitude-seekers may, in fact, be feeling lonely, anxious, and depressed if they choose to be alone because they don’t think other people like them, feel like they are always saying the wrong thing, or they can’t be themselves when they are with other people.

The findings also demonstrate why, for some people who choose to be alone, there is no reason at all to be concerned. People who choose to be alone for positive reasons (enjoying the quiet and the privacy; getting in touch with your feelings; doing things you love) seem to be at no special risk for feeling lonely or anxious. Instead, people who choose to be alone for positive reasons may be more likely to enjoy greater self-acceptance and personal growth.

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