Are you someone who wants to be alone? Is it something you enjoy, or do you find yourself needing time away from others? This is often referred to as “solitude” which Burger (1995) defines as the absence of social interactions. In most cases this will mean physical isolation from others.” (p. 86)
It’s not uncommon for people to be characterized in terms of their sociability. For example, “Kim loves to be around people and is always talking to them; whereas Brenda tends to stay to herself whenever she can.” In terms of character, Kim could be identified as extroverted and Brenda as introverted. Although such descriptions may apply to some people, most of us gravitate along a continuum of sociability. That is, the degree of our social interactions often varies and is balanced depending on our emotional and situational circumstances.
Generally, when we think of people who prefer being solitary, we think of them as “different.” We recognize that as human beings, we are a social species based on our evolutionary experience of affiliating and depending upon others for our very survival in a harsh world. This need has not significantly diminished for most of us. Indeed, even those who prefer being alone recognize the importance of and often engage in social interactions.
There are several benefits for people being involved in social interactions. In addition to those mentioned above, it can enhance
- self esteem by having others want to affiliate with you
- communication and understanding skills
- knowledge of yourself based on the feedback of others or your reactions to others
- intellectual and emotional stimulation
- motivation in improving yourself or your life in areas you never believed you needed to or considered
- the pleasure derived by engaging and relating with others
In terms of solitude, how might this be conceptualized? Some researchers use the same definition as Burger; however, others such as Larson (1990) define it more broadly as not only the absence of being with others but all else that such absence affects (e.g., the demands, scrutiny, emotional support, and exchanging of information and responding with each other, pp. 157-158). Given this separation from others, can it affect an individual’s well-being? This may well depend on why the person has chosen to be alone.
Some people are non-social because they may
- have a need for privacy
- need to escape from stress or the demands from others
- have a limited ability to tolerate stimulation or the unexpected
- prefer a more known and uneventful lifestyle, with little distraction
- be sensitive to judgement and criticism
These individuals’ mental health may depend on the nature and extent of their social interactions and the negative or positive reactions to them. For those who tend to be alone because of social anxiety and a lack of social skills, feelings of loneliness, alienation, and boredom are common. However, being in the company of others does not necessarily defend against experiencing such reactions, even for people who do not have these symptoms. Moreover, it should be mentioned that some people who tend to be solitary, do so as a function of a mental illness (e.g., depression, schizoid personality, anorexia).
Positive reactions also stem from solitude. In fact, time to be alone can be an important developmental stage. For instance, during adolescence, teenagers often seek solitude where they can escape from the judgment of others, have time alone to process their feelings and thoughts, perform self-introspection, and assert their need for privacy. For anyone experiencing important life changes, engaging in solitude affords an opportunity for self-reflection regarding problems and decision-making. It can also promote self-healing and its maintenance.
For many people who are not going through major life issues, time to be alone also provides a relief from social pressures. The person may feel less self-conscious. Having this relief can result in energized and happier states of mind. Periods of solitude that do not induce panic or loneliness may also promote independence and confidence in one’s ability to cope without always depending on social support. The “tranquility” that solitude provides can also lead to better interpersonal behavior and relationships. For example, a harried parent who takes some time to be alone and can be away from pressures, can then recharge, reflect, and regroup before resuming contact with others.
By being free from social interactions and their constraints, one of the most common experiences deriving from solitude is creativity, spiritual growth, and time to explore values and goals without interference or distraction.
The amount of time people spend alone typically varies across their life situation, life style, and the demands placed on their time. Periods of solitude may not only be intrapersonally healthy, but also helpful in improving relationships with others.
Burger, J. M. (1995). Individual differences in preference for solitude. Journal of Research in Personality, 29, 85-108.
Larson, R. W. (1990). The solitary side of life: An examination of the time people spend alone from childhood to old age. Developmental Review, 10, 155-183. doi.org/10.1016/0273-2297(90)90008-R
Long, C. R., Seburn, M., Averill, J. R., & More, T. A. (2003). Solitude experiences: Varieties, settings, and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 578-583. doi.org/10.1177/0146167203029005003
Roeters, A., Cloin, M., van der Lippe, T. (2014). Solitary time and mental health in the Netherlands. Social Indicators Research, 119, 925-941. DOI : 10.1007/s11205-013-0523-4