Young people who choose solitude may be doing what is best for themselves, according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescence. The findings suggest that spending a lot of time alone isn’t necessarily a red flag for isolation or depression, but the key factor here is “choice.”
When solitude is imposed on young people, whether as punishment or as a result of social anxiety, it can be problematic. But chosen solitude can lead to personal growth and self-acceptance, say the researchers from the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, and Wilmington College.
“Solitude has gotten a lot of bad press, especially for adolescents who get labeled as social misfits or lonely,” said co-author Dr. Margarita Azmitia, professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz. “Sometimes, solitude is good. Developmentally, learning to be alone is a skill, and it can be refreshing and restorative.”
Most research on this issue doesn’t differentiate between solitude and loneliness, said Azmitia. “There’s a stigma for kids who spend time alone. They’re considered lacking in social skills, or they get labeled ‘loners,’ ” she said.
“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, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Wilmington College, spearheaded the study as a graduate student in Azmitia’s lab, where she specialized in the role of solitude in identity development and emotional wellbeing.
When teens choose to spend time alone, says Thomas, solitude can provide an opportunity for self-reflection, creative expression, or spiritual renewal. But it can be challenging when it is imposed on them — when they pull away from social events because they lack friends, feel awkward, experience social anxiety, or are being punished.
To distinguish between these motivations, the researchers developed a 14-item survey that asked participants to rate their reasons for solitude on a four-point scale, asking questions like, “I feel energized when I spend time by myself,” and “I enjoy the quiet,” versus “I feel uncomfortable when I’m with others,” and “I regret things I say or do when I’m with others.”
“We got clear results that are pretty reliable indicators of adaptive versus maladaptive solitude,” said Thomas.
The findings show that young people who go into solitude because they feel rejected or want to retreat into isolation are at greater risk of social anxiety, loneliness, and depression, and they tend to have lower levels of identity development, autonomy, and positive relationships with others. On the other hand, those who seek solitude for positive reasons, such as self-reflection or a desire for peace and quiet, face none of these risks.
“These results increase our awareness that being alone can be restorative and a positive thing,” said Thomas. “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.”
Solitude serves the same positive functions in introverts and extroverts. “Introverts just need more of it,” noted Thomas.
“Our culture is pretty biased toward extroversion,” she said. “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 benefits of solitude for their children. “Parents can help their children understand that being alone isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean nobody likes you,” said Azmitia. “Solitude can improve the well-being of kids who are overstimulated. They can learn to regulate their behavior, on their own, without being told to.”
“We need to build our cultural understanding that we don’t have to be social all the time,” said Azmitia. “Sometimes alone time is good time.”