BUFFALO — When it comes to seeking solitude, many people often blame mental health issues as an underlying cause. But a new study finds that being alone has its benefits too, particularly when it comes to people looking for a surge of creativity.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo interviewed 295 privacy-valuing individuals who reported a variety of reasons for their tendency to spend a lot of time alone, ranging from feeling fear or anxiety around others to preferring to use spare time working on a craft.
Although research has traditionally suggested that excessive time alone can be unhealthy, some seclusive pursuits, such as trying to connect to nature or get a better sense of self, can be constructive, the researchers found.
“We have to understand why someone is withdrawing to understand the associated risks and benefits,” says Julie Bowker, the study’s lead author, in a university release.
“When people think about the costs associated with social withdrawal, oftentimes they adopt a developmental perspective,” she continues. “During childhood and adolescence, the idea is that if you’re removing yourself too much from your peers, then you’re missing out on positive interactions like receiving social support, developing social skills and other benefits of interacting with your peers.”
Bowker believes that the presumed downsides of being alone and withdrawing have lent such a preference a hard-to-erase stigma.
More recent research, including this latest study, has begun to recognize the potential benefits of alone time — provided it’s an intentional choice prompted by positive emotions.
Deeming individuals who follow such guidelines “unsociable,” Bowker explains that they may enjoy reading, working on the computer, or otherwise spending precious time alone.
Importantly, unsociable individuals, whether young and old, are not at increased risk of experiencing negative health outcomes. In fact, the researchers found that they may enjoy a special benefit: improved creativity.
“Although unsociable youth spend more time alone than with others, we know that they spend some time with peers. They are not antisocial,” Bowker emphasizes. “They don’t initiate interaction, but also don’t appear to turn down social invitations from peers. Therefore, they may get just enough peer interaction so that when they are alone, they are able to enjoy that solitude. They’re able to think creatively and develop new ideas — like an artist in a studio or the academic in his or her office.”
Other, less healthy forms of isolation include social avoidance (i.e., choosing to withdraw due to fear), and social withdrawal (i.e., shyness), she notes.
While these two forms may overlap with unsociability, neither would appear to confer the benefits of the latter.
“Over the years, unsociability has been characterized as a relatively benign form of social withdrawal,” Bowker concludes. “But, with the new findings linking it to creativity, we think unsociability may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of social withdrawal.”
The study’s findings were published Personality and Individual Differences.