There's a rich literature on the harmful effects of loneliness and solitude, stretching back at least to the Book of Genesis, when God proclaimed that “it is not good for the man to be alone.”
Children who socially withdraw from their peers are at greater risk for anxiety, low self-esteem, poor interpersonal relationships and poor academic performance. Other studies have shown that loneliness is associated with lower cognitive function, increased rates of smoking, pain, depression, fatigue and death. Researchers are starting to declare loneliness a public health crisis.
But what about those who seek out solitude? People who withdraw from others not because they're shy, or because they dislike social contact, but rather because they simply enjoy spending time alone?
A new study by a group of psychologists at SUNY Buffalo finds that not all forms of social withdrawal are harmful. In fact, the study is the first to find a link between a particular type of social withdrawal and a beneficial outcome — in this case, increased creativity.
In recent years, psychologists have become particularly interested in people who seek solitude simply because they prefer it. These individuals don't necessarily avoid interacting with others, but they don't seek out a lot of interpersonal contact either.
“They are not antisocial,” author Julie Bowker said in a news release. “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.”
To tease out how these “unsociable” people are different from the shy or the truly anti-social, Bowker and her colleagues recruited 295 university students and had them complete a battery of common assessments about their personalities, their social lives and their creativity. The assessments rated the students' level of agreement with various items including “Having close friends is not as important as many people say” and “I feel pretty worried or upset when I think or know somebody is angry at me.”
Although the assessments are all standard tools in the psychological literature, a couple of caveats are in order. First, college students aren't representative of the nation as a whole, so these findings about educated young adults may not generalize to the broader population. Second, with self-reported data there's always the risk that people aren't being completely honest with themselves.
Nevertheless, the students' data yielded some noteworthy insights. People who were shy or antisocial scored lower than average on the measure of creativity. But people who were “unsociable” — those who sought out solitude — scored higher on creativity.
Unsociable people, in other words, “may be able to spend their time in solitude constructively, unlike shy and avoidant individuals who may be too distracted and/or preoccupied by their negative cognitions and distress,” the authors posit.
Other research — and indeed, the life experiences of many famously creative people — back up this notion. The solitary genius is a familiar trope in Western society. Think of Thoreau in his cabin, Van Gogh alone in an asylum and Beethoven's withdrawal into silent solitude.
More recently, a 2003 paper explored how solitude was associated with “freedom, creativity, intimacy, and spirituality.” Being alone “reduces the need for impression management without imposing a pattern of behavior to which one feels pressure to conform,” that paper found.
Research also has found that highly intelligent people are happier when they have fewer friends. “Those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it . . . are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective,” Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution explained to me last year.
Taken together, these findings suggest that you don't need to be a genius or a madman to benefit from a little solitude. And if you find yourself needing a break from the crowds, don't feel bad about scheduling a little — or a lot — of me time this holiday season.