EMOTIONAL HEALTH
April 11, 2019

The Difference Between Solitude and Loneliness

Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Taking a little me-time is a sign of mental health.

Taking time out to be alone is not the same as being lonely. Giving yourself some me-time can be a chance to reflect and recharge, a study of students making the often stressful transition from high school to college found.

“Approaching solitude for its enjoyment and intrinsic values is linked to psychological health,” the study's lead author, Thuy-vy Nguyen, said in a statement.

What matters is your motivation for seeking solitude, the researchers say. People who purposefully seek alone-time tend to report feeling less lonely, have greater self-esteem and feel more, rather than less, related to others. Those who withdraw into solitude, perhaps because of loss, or negative social interactions however, are more likely to experience the negative effects of solitude, such as feelings of isolation or loneliness.

The decision to spend time alone and to see it as something that is valuable and enjoyable is evidence of autonomous motivation and a sign of self-determination.

You are the authority when it comes to your time alone.

Researchers from the University of Rochester, Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and Ghent University in Belgium conducted two studies: One looking at self esteem in 147 first-year college students in the U.S., and the other testing for loneliness and relatedness among 223 first-year students in Canada. They were able to study the interaction between new students' social lives and their motivation for spending time alone as it related to their adjustment to college life.

First-year students who enjoyed their alone time seemed to display greater psychological health, using solitary time to detach themselves from social pressures and getting back to their own values and interests, the team found.

Making time for yourself, taking time to relax, is a good thing. “Being alone does not make you a loner, which is a very easy stereotype to internalize when you first enter college — especially when you think that everyone around you is socializing when you are not.

Solitude is a personal experience for everyone…” Nguyen points out. “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.”

You are the authority when it comes to your time alone. If a little me-time is what you need to feel yourself again, go for it. If you feel lonely and suspect you are withdrawing, perhaps spending time on social media instead of with other people, you may want to think about visiting your school's counseling center. Joining an on-campus group related to one of your interests or activities — whether it's skiing or bird-watching or Ultimate Frisbee — can also help.

The study is published in Motivation and Emotion.

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