In this day and age, depression amongst college students is a growing issue: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), more than 10 percent of all college students have been diagnosed with depression. While many may believe that a telltale sign of depression can be social withdrawal and isolation, new studies conducted at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz) show that this may not always be the case; in fact, young adults who spend time alone can gain many benefits from this chosen solitude.
While it is true that solitude inflicted as punishment or caused by anxiety disorders can be detrimental to one’s mental health, solitude by choice can lead to personal learning and development.
Margarita Azmitia, a professor in the Psychology department at UC Santa Cruz, explained that she thought solitude could be a positive thing and should not always be regarded as a bad thing. “Solitude has gotten a lot of bad press, especially for adolescents who get labeled as social misfits or lonely,” Azmitia said in a press release. “Sometimes, solitude is good. Developmentally, learning to be alone is a skill, and it can be refreshing and restorative.”
She continued to explain that studies in the past have confounded solitude with loneliness.
To show this, Azmitia and Virginia Thomas, a Psychology professor at Wilmington College, developed a 14-question survey for students that tried to pinpoint their reasons for withdrawal from social situations.
In the survey, students were given statements describing potential reasons for solitude, such as “I enjoy the quiet” and “I feel uncomfortable when I’m with others,” and were then asked to rate these reasons on a four-point scale.
From the results, the researchers were clearly able to deviate those who withdrew socially for positive reasons, such as for their own enjoyment, and those who withdrew due to depression or anxiety-related reasons. The latter group was identified to have less positive relationships and was at a higher risk for greater anxiety or depression, while the former group had none of these issues.
In fact, the researchers found that those who chose to spend a lot of time alone experience more self and creative expression as well as spiritual renewal.
Therefore, while current cultural norms among young people may encourage a social, interconnected lifestyle, the results showed that this may not always be the most beneficial; it shouldn’t be alarming if a teen chooses to spend more time alone because chosen solitude can be fulfilling as well.
Thomas explained that these findings pose a new question.
“These results increase our awareness that being alone can be restorative and a positive thing,” Thomas said in a press release.
“The question is how to be alone without feeling like we’re missing out. For many people, solitude is like exercising a muscle they’ve never used. You have to develop it, flex it, and learn to use time alone to your benefit.”
The researchers believe that this study is important because it should encourage parents to teach their children that spending time alone isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t make you a “loner” or an “outcast.” On the contrary, it can increase your well-being even more or just as much as spending time with friends.