Solitude Seeking: The Good, the Bad, and the Balance

Dongning Ren, Purdue University


The prevailing literature has provided compelling evidence for the ill effects of solitude on both mental and physical health: for example, solitude thwarts the fundamental need to belong, threatens self-esteem, causes stress and depression, compromises the immune system, increases the risk for heart disease, and shortens life expectancy. However, these conclusions are largely based on studies of ostracism, rejection, loneliness, and solitary confinement – situations in which people are forced into solitude. The current research sought to understand the causes and effects of voluntary solitude. To this end, I proposed and tested a homeostatic model of sociality – solitude, in which people are motivated to optimize well-being by balancing two opposing forces: the desire for social contact, and the desire for solitude. I also anticipated an exception to this model: ostracized individuals may, at least temporarily, seek further isolation. In Study 1, I used qualitative methods (i.e., survey interview), to gather a variety of motives for solitude. The most common motives included coping with negative events, avoiding distractions, and the regulation of emotion. Then, in Studies 2-6, I used quantitative methods (both correlational and experimental studies), to examine whether being ostracized would motivate solitude seeking. In support of this hypothesis, participants’ preference for solitude was found to be positively associated with higher frequencies of chronic ostracism experiences (Study 2), and increased following a brief episode of ostracism, especially among introverts (Studies 3-6). In Study 7, I examined the homeostatic prediction of sociality – solitude. Consistent with this hypothesis, compared to participants who were led to believe their future job would involve fewer social interactions, participants who were led to believe their future job would require frequent social interactions reported higher preferences for solitary leisure activities (e.g., reading a book), but lower preferences for social leisure activities (e.g., attending a party). This effect was robust regardless of variation on trait extraversion. Further, in Studies 8-9, I provided evidence for the benefits of balancing sociality with solitude. Both correlational (Study 8) and experimental data (Study 9) revealed that, not only too much solitude, but too little solitude was associated with less positive well-being outcomes (e.g., need satisfaction, life satisfaction, and mental health). Finally, in Study 10, I employed a longitudinal experiment to test whether college students would better schedule their activities to obtain both social time and alone time if they were instructed to do so. Surprisingly, regardless of instruction, all participants reported that they attempted to balance sociality with solitude. This finding, though unexpected, converges with the results of Study 7, suggesting that people are intrinsically motivated to regulate their social/solitary experience to reach an optimal balance. Taken together, despite (1) the fundamental need to belong, (2) the well-documented ill effects of solitude, and (3) the personality variation in extraversion, my results suggest that individuals seek and can benefit from solitude. Contrary to forced solitude, voluntary solitude serves as a social shelter, that allows individuals to “lick one’s wounds” and “recharge social batteries”. Voluntary solitude appears to follow an optimality principle: too little or too much is not preferred and can have negative consequences. Individuals appear to seek an optimal balance between sociality and solitude; both the desire for social connections and the desire for solitude are essential to human happiness and well-being. ^




Kipling D. Williams, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Psychology

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