How well a student handles the often stressful transition from high school to college has long-term implications for his or her academic performance. Previous research has suggested that one frequent pitfall during the first year of college is social isolation, as loneliness can have serious detrimental effects on a student’s mental health, potentially leading to depression.
But being alone isn’t necessarily bad, argue an international team of researchers from the University of Rochester in New York, Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and Ghent University in Belgium.
“Approaching solitude for its enjoyment and intrinsic values is linked to psychological health, especially for those who don’t feel as if they belong to their social groups,” said lead author Thuy-vy Nguyen, Ph.D., from the University of Rochester. “These findings highlight the importance of cultivating the ability to enjoy and value solitary time as a meaningful experience, rather than trying to disregard it, or escape from it.”
But what marks the difference between helpful and potentially harmful solitude? The key is positive motivation, say the researchers. A healthy, autonomous seeking of alone time is linked to greater self-esteem, a greater sense of feeling related to others, and feeling less lonely.
On the other hand, a person who withdraws from society due to negative social experiences will more likely experience the negative effects of solitude, such as isolation or social withdrawal. The reasons behind solitary behaviors are important as they determine how we experience alone time and its potential benefits.
Nguyen is building on decades of research by her veteran Rochester mentors, Drs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, co-founders of self-determination theory (SDT).
The theoretical framework of SDT fits nicely into the investigation of how individuals’ motivations for spending time alone contribute to well-being. Per definition, autonomous motivation for being alone refers to a person’s decision to spend time in solitude in a manner that is valuable and enjoyable for the person.
Previous research suggests that spending too much time socializing during the first year of college, and as a result having little time for oneself, may be tied to poor adjustment.
But over the course of two studies, conducted with 147 first-year college students in the U.S. (testing for self-esteem) and 223 in Canada (testing for loneliness and relatedness), the researchers were able to untangle the interaction between new students’ social life and their motivation for spending time alone as a predictor of their successful adjustment to college life.
“In previous research, it has been framed in ways that those with more access to social connections tend to have a better time in solitude. But in our study, having a healthy motivation for solitude actually is associated with wellness for those who have less access to social connections,” Nguyen said.
The key findings include the following:
- First-year college students who valued and enjoyed their alone time displayed better mental health;
- Alone time can be useful for detaching oneself from societal pressures and getting back to one’s own values and interests, which in turn allows for better behavior regulation (with a greater sense of autonomy and choice);
- The link between freely chosen motivation for solitude and psychological health is stronger for those who don’t feel they belong in college;
- Parents play a role in shaping their children’s capacity to be alone by allowing children time for independent play.
“I wish I had known to worry less,” says Nguyen, referring to her first year of college. The transition to college can be difficult with the pressure to socialize and make new friends, she notes. However, it’s important to consider that alone time is also valuable.
The new findings are published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
Source: University of Rochester