Worried that your teen is spending too much time alone in her room? Turns out, alone time is good for them, and you too, as long as you're not forced into it. According to a new study, when people choose solitude, they're actually enhancing their creativity, identity development and emotional regulation skills.
The study, titled, Motivation matters: Development and validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale - Short Form (MSS-SF), was recently published in the Journal of Adolescence. Theravive spoke with one of the authors of the study, Margarita Azmitia, a professor of psychology at the University of California.
“We were hoping to find out if we could develop a measure that distinguished between the positive aspects of being alone such as identity development, creativity, emotional regulation, and the negative aspects of being alone, such as loneliness and anxiety about potential social rejection,” Azmitia told Theravive. “Too often, people who enjoy time alone are portrayed as misfits who lack social skills or extreme introverts, and we wanted to show that this is not always the case.”
Azmitia and her colleague and fellow study author, Virginia Thomas, professor of psychology at Wilmington College, began by building on the work of psychology expert, Reed Larson, and others who showed that learning to be alone is a key developmental milestone that is necessary for identity development, creativity, and emotional regulation.
“We were also drawing on the work on creative insight showing that often, great discoveries were made when people took a moment away from their work/engagement with others and took a walk, a shower, or just sat for a moment,” Azmitia told us. “These were not necessarily planned moments, but rather, people reading their internal signs that they were needed to take a moment.”
Azmitia has also done some work on collaborative problem-solving showing that from childhood through to young adulthood, disengagement from collaboration does not mean that it's not happening.
“People are realizing that when collaboration becomes too emotionally frustrating, pulling apart may be better in the long run so they can manage their emotions and thinking,” Azmitia explained to us. “Kind of like when one is in a heated conflict and withdraws before it escalates and they end up saying or doing things they regret.”
Azmitia says she chose to study this topic thanks to her student, Gina Thomas, who was very interested in why solitude gets a bad rap and why we tend to force young children to play with others when they prefer to play alone.
“We live in a very extroverted culture that privileges being social, so we wanted to show that extroverts also need solitude and that when we choose to be alone, it is very productive,” Azmitia told us. “We also wanted to include adolescents because their fear of missing out or rejection can make them avoid solitude. Basically, we wanted to show that learning to be alone is as important as learning to be social for positive development.”
To test out their theory, Azmitia and her colleagues created a survey that they gave to adolescents and young adults. They created daily diaries using smart phones in which participants were prompted several times a day to record what they were doing, who they were doing it with, and how they were feeling. Researchers also used social media to ask users to share their positive and negative uses of solitude and managed to hear back from people of all ages, right up into their seventies.
“The results generally supported our theory, but we had expected that adolescents would be the group most anxious about the ‘fear of missing out’ and it turned out it was college students,” Azmitia told us. “For middle-aged and older adults, and especially women, solitude was a treat, which challenges the stereotype that older adults are lonelier than younger adults.”
Azmitia believes the results of the study help us to think about the ways in which we can help people learn solitude skills starting in childhood, and change the culture of solitude equating with being a lonely misfit to one in which people learn to balance aloneness and sociability.
“It’s the ying and the yang of positive development,” Azmitia told us. “We are glad to demonstrate that both introverts and extroverts need solitude, just that introverts need more of it.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com