Striking a balance between solitude and social interaction

David Ludden
Photo by Samantha Hurley from Burst

We all need a little “me time” now and then, but people vary greatly in how much time they prefer to spend in solitude. Some try to limit their alone time as much as possible, whereas others desire far more than they can fit into their busy schedules.

The Difference Between Solitude and Loneliness

Although both solitude and loneliness involve being isolated from others, they’re not the same thing. We feel lonely when we don’t get the personal interactions we need, and it’s quite painful. In contrast, solitude is experienced as pleasurable—a kind of alone time that we seek out rather than try to avoid.

Solitude gives us a chance to think, to enjoy a good book, or to get some respite from the stresses of an overactive social life. A desire for solitude can also be the hallmark of a mature, intelligent person since many intellectual pursuits tend to be solitary in nature. However, a general preference for solitude may come at a price, in that it puts us in danger of feeling lonely after we’ve accomplished our solitary goals.

Some people prefer solitude because they’ve had unpleasant social experiences in the past. In response, they throw themselves into their work or hobbies, which they find more enjoyable than spending time with people they find tedious or mean-spirited. But at the end of the day, there’s still an unmet need for meaningful connections with others.

Our pursuit of solitude can also impact those around us. When we put distance between ourselves and others often enough, those people may be reluctant to reconnect with us when we’re ready to restart our social life. Research shows that even school-aged children avoid interacting with classmates who spend a lot of time alone, and the same is true for adolescents and adults.

The Link Between Solitude and Ostracism

According to Tilburg University (Netherlands) psychologists Dongning Ren and Anthony Evans, people who seek solitude often experience ostracism from others in their social network. In a study they recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they proposed two reasons for this.

One reason could be that people may expect it to not be much fun interacting with a person who likes spending a lot of time alone. The researchers refer to this reason as self-interested concern because these people shun the solitary person out of concern for their own well-being.

The other reason could be that people may assume the solitude-seeking person doesn’t want to be bothered and so they keep their distance. The researchers call this reason other-regarding concern, in that these people are thinking about the welfare of the other person.

In a series of five studies, Ren and Evans teased out the reasons why this ostracism occurs. In the first two studies, they found that people who have a high preference for solitude also report high levels of feeling ostracized. This finding confirms the results of previous research.

In the next two studies, the researchers asked participants to read vignettes about people who were often or rarely solitary. The results showed that people are more willing to ostracize those who prefer spending a lot of time alone. However, the degree of ostracism was still rather low, more along the lines of “prefer not to spend time with them” rather than “avoid them at all costs.”

"Leaving the Loners Alone"

As the title of Ren and Evans’ article points out, people often prefer “leaving the loners alone.”

Thus, their final study got at the question of why people ostracize those who seek solitude. Similar to the previous two studies, participants read vignettes about people with varying degrees of preference for solitude. They then indicated how much they agreed with statements such as “I would probably not have a good time hanging out with this person” (self-interested concern) or “This person would probably not have a good time at social events” (other-regarding concern).

Respondents indicated that they kept both reasons in mind as they decided not to interact with the person known for seeking solitude. That is, they did take into consideration how the other person was likely to feel. However, a statistical analysis showed that self-interested concern—that is, fear of being bored—was a much stronger motivator than other-regarding concern.

In other words, it appears that the respondents acted on self-interest but cloaked it as concern for the other person. People often rationalize selfish reasons by telling themselves they’re acting for someone else’s good, so we shouldn’t be surprised when people act this way when it comes to deciding whether to approach or avoid a person who’s known for spending lots of time alone.

The results of this study bring us back to the basic truth that we need to strike a balance in life. We all have a need for social interaction and deep connections with at least a few other people in our lives. At the same time, periods of solitude are also important for maintaining our psychological health. Those who enjoy spending time alone need to take extra care not to neglect other people in their lives, lest they give the impression that they don’t value their social network.

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David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. As the author of two books and a popular blog for Psychology Today, he mainly writes about communication in relationships and the things couples can do to have more satisfying interactions.

Lawrenceville, GA

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