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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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Should We Be Left Alone? Psychological Perspectives on the Implications of Seeking Solitude (Robert J. Coplan / Julie C. Bowker)

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Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker

Should We Be Left Alone? Psychological Perspectives on the Implications of Seeking Solitude

Abstract: This essay reviews psychological perspectives on the costs and benefits of solitude. We conclude that solitude is more likely to be problematic when arising from a choice to avoid social interaction (e.g., social anxiety) and more likely to confer benefits when resulting from a preference to approach the desired state of spending time alone.

1. Psychological Views of Solitude

Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior. Psychology researchers explore a wide range of factors that may serve to underlie both normative and atypical behaviors, from emotions and unconscious processes, to cognitions and motivations, from genetics and the neurochemistry of the brain, to family and culture. In this chapter, we provide an overview and synthesis of psychological perspectives on the implications of the human behavior of ‘seeking solitude.’

In many ways, the experience of solitude is an ideal topic for psychological inquiry. First, it is a ubiquitous phenomenon across the lifespan and across the globe. As well, our emotions, cognitions, and even our neurochemistry impact upon our desires, motivations, and decisions to seek out aloneness. Moreover, there is also a wide range of subjective reactions, responses, and consequences to spending time alone. This has made solitude a topic of interest for many sub-disciplines of psychology – which in turn reflect multiple and competing perspectives and approaches.

For example, developmental psychologists have considered both the costs and benefits of solitude from early childhood to adulthood (Rubin and Coplan). Social psychologists have emphasized that affiliation with others is a basic human need (Baumeister and Leary), and neuroscientists have shown that loneliness is not only bad for our well-being, but can also take a toll on our physical health (Cacioppo and Patrick). Notwithstanding, personality psychologists have identified individuals that are often happier when spending time alone (Leary, Herbst, and McCrary). However, the extreme pursuit of solitude is considered by clinical psychologists a symptom of mental health disorders (American Psychological Association).

We begin with a brief description of the definitions and key concepts that will set the scope of our review of the psychological study of solitude. This is followed ← 287 | 288 → by a brief synthesis of the major psychological perspectives espousing both the costs and benefits of seeking solitude. We finish with a consideration of the critical importance of context, which serves to mitigate the implications of spending time alone and raises many questions for future research.

2. All Alone? Key Concepts and Considerations

Given the enormous breadth and volume of psychological studies that can be broadly related to the concept of solitude, we begin this chapter by proving the definitions and key concepts that serve to set the scope for this essay. In this regard, we focus on three important definitional and conceptual distinctions: (1) physical vs. perceived experiences of solitude; (2) social withdrawal vs. active isolation; and (3) normative behaviors vs. psychopathology.

2.1 Physical versus Perceived Solitude

In common conversation, the word ‘solitude’ may evoke images of being marooned on a desert isle or the lone occupant of a lighthouse shining a beacon to sea during a tempest. These descriptive exemplars emphasize solitude as a physical separation from others. In this essay, consistent with the conceptualization of solitude provided by Reed Larson, we focus instead on self-perceived separation (“Solitary Side”). This approach acknowledges that there will be occasions when although we may be in physical proximity with others, we will remain socially, communicatively, and emotionally detached (i.e., alone in a crowd). Accordingly, solitude is often construed, at least in part, as a function of an individual’s internal states, including cognitions, affects, and motivations.

For example, a young child in a crowded preschool playroom who is observed to be engaged in building a block tower but not paying attention to other children nearby, would be considered to be displaying solitary play (Coplan). Adolescents often report feeling alone and lonely even when they are in the presence of family or peers (van Roekel et al.). Similarly, in the study of solitude and isolation among the elderly, there is a growing call to move beyond objective criteria and assessments, such as living alone, to more subjective considerations, such as perceived social connectedness with family and community (Wethington and Pillemer).

Larson further points out that according to his definition, an individual would not be considered alone if they were at home by themselves but talking to someone on the phone (“Solitary Side”). Thus, just as we can sometimes be considered alone in the presence of others, physical separation from others does not always imply solitude. Larson also suggests that if the individual home by themselves ← 288 | 289 → was watching television or listening to music, they would be alone because, under these circumstances, there would be no demands or expectations for social responsiveness. However, as we will discuss in a later section, rapidly changing contemporary technologies related to computer-mediated communication and social networking are challenging our notions of what it means to be alone (Turkle). Notwithstanding, our conceptualization of solitude would be best described as more akin to a state of mind than to a state of being.

2.2 Social Withdrawal versus Active Isolation

Timothy Wilson and colleagues conducted a series of studies where they asked college students to spend a short period of time (between 6 and 14 minutes, depending upon the specific study) alone in an unadorned room, without cell phones, writing implements, or any such additional materials. Participants were asked to spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, and the only rules were that they needed to remain in their seats and awake. Afterwards, these students were asked questions about their perceptions of this experience (e.g., how enjoyable it was, how hard it was to concentrate) and then given choices between either repeating the experience or engaging in other potentially more positive or negative tasks. The results were unequivocal. As a group, participants did not enjoy being forced to sit alone with their thoughts, even for this relatively brief period of time. Not surprisingly, students reported a clear preference for engaging in a neutral or positive activity (e.g., reading a book, listening to music) rather than continuing to sit alone and unoccupied. However, the majority of participants also actually elected to receive electric shocks rather than sit alone again with nothing to do.

The design of this study confounds the physical context of being alone with a lack of external stimulation (i.e., the experience of boredom). Notwithstanding, it is a striking illustration of how we do not like having solitude forced upon us. With this in mind, our next consideration is whether the source of one’s solitude is external versus internal. For example, one manner in which someone may end up spending considerable time alone is vis-à-vis social isolation, a process whereby individuals are forced into solitude because they are rejected and ostracized by others (Rubin and Mills). As a result of disastrous historical circumstances such as the tragedy of the Romanian orphanages, psychology researchers have demonstrated the profound and life-long destructive consequences of extreme social isolation, neglect, and deprivation (Nelson, Fox, and Zeanah). There is also a considerable body of research demonstrating that the day-to-day experiences of being socially excluded and rejected by one’s peers is damaging to our psychological and physical ← 289 | 290 → well-being, throughout childhood and adolescence (Rubin, Bukowski, and Bowker) and among adults (Williams and Nida). However, for our purposes, we are primarily concerned with social withdrawal, the process where individuals remove themselves (for one reason or another) from opportunities for social interaction (Rubin, Coplan, and Bowker).

Psychology researchers have examined a variety of reasons why individuals may seek out solitude, including the desire for privacy (Pedersen), the pursuance of religious experiences (Hay and Morisy), enjoyment of leisure activities (Purcell and Keller), and avoiding upsetting situations (Larson, “Solitary Side”). As we discuss in a later section, the implications of social withdrawal for our well-being are closely tied to our motivations for seeking solitude. For example, choosing to spend time alone can be restorative for individuals with an affinity for solitude (Hills and Argyle). In contrast, for those who desire social contact but retreat to solitude because of feelings of social fear and anxiety, being alone can lead to increased loneliness, worry, and depression (Brown et al.).

2.3 Normative Behaviors vs. Psychopathology

Finally, from the perspective of clinical psychology, excessive solitude is often considered a behavioral manifestation of psychopathology. For example, extreme social avoidance is a behavioral characteristic of several clinically-diagnosed mental health disorders, including social anxiety disorder (Rao et al.), avoidant personality disorder (Westen and Shedler), and schizophrenia (Hansen et al.). For the purposes of this chapter, we focus primarily on the psychological study of solitude within the (still very wide) confines of normative behaviors.

3. Costs of Solitude

As we have already indicated, being forced into solitude is not only an experience that few people enjoy, but such social isolation also has substantive negative implications for our well-being. However, it is also important to note that choosing to spend time alone does not always have positive implications.

For example, shy and socially anxious individuals may retreat into solitude despite strong desires for social interaction (Asendorpf). A shy child, for instance, may be motivated and interested in playing with others, but at the same time, these social situations also evoke feelings of social fear, unease, and self-consciousness. Thus, even when given opportunities to interact with peers, negative thoughts and feelings often cause shy and anxious individuals to avoid social situations and withdraw into solitude. ← 290 | 291 →

Unfortunately however, choosing to spend time alone appears to do little to alleviate shy and socially anxious individuals’ psychological distress. Indeed, a degenerative cycle may ensue whereby shyness and social withdrawal lead to negative psychological outcomes such as loneliness and depression, which in turn exacerbate feelings of shyness and heighten social withdrawal (Gazelle and Ladd; Gazelle and Rudolph). Why might this be the case? Recall that although shy and socially anxious individuals are fearful and self-conscious about social interactions and relationships, they do generally want to interact with others. Thus, it is likely that their withdrawal into solitude interferes with the fulfillment of their social needs and desires, which in turn leads to increasing psychological distress (Baumeister and Leary). Moreover, when shy and socially anxious individuals do interact and form relationships with peers and romantic partners, such relationship experiences are oftentimes plagued by negative and challenging interactions. This, in turn, often further strengthens tendencies to socially withdraw and contributes to psychological ill-being (Oh et al.).

Indeed, extreme shyness in childhood is one of the strongest risk factors predicting later more serious mental health problems, such as social anxiety disorder (Chronis-Tuscano et al.). Also of concern are the strong linkages between shyness, social anxiety, and heightened feelings of ‘loneliness.’ Not only is chronic loneliness damaging to psychological well-being, but there is also a growing literature linking it to negative health outcomes (e.g., high cardiovascular activation, sleep dysfunction, obesity) throughout the life-span (Cacioppo and Patrick). In this regard, loneliness is conceptualized as a persistent form of social stress, which can lead to long-term negative physiological effects (e.g., increased levels of cortisol). Thus, it does not appear that shy and socially anxious individuals experience many benefits from spending time in solitude despite choosing solitude over social interaction.

In other cases, individuals may seek solitude because they desire and enjoy the experience of being alone (Coplan, Ooi, and Nocita). Such unsociable (or socially disinterested) individuals may not mind being with others (and will not specifically turn down or refuse attractive social invitations), but if given the choice, are often happy spending time alone. Thus, in this context, seeking solitude can be conceptualized as an affinity for aloneness (Goossens), rather than an avoidance of (stressful) social contexts.

It seems clear that we would be less concerned about the negative implications of solitude under these circumstances. Indeed, initial evidence suggests that as compared to those who seek solitude because of shyness and social anxiety, unsociability and an affinity for aloneness appear to be comparatively benign during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (Bowker and Raja; Coplan, Ooi, and ← 291 | 292 → Nocita; Nelson). However, some psychological theory does suggest that excessive time spent alone, even under these relatively benign conditions, may still carry some costs. For example, it has long been argued that spending too much time alone in childhood may take away from important opportunities to engage with and learn from peers. Jean Piaget posited that peers provide a unique developmental context in which children and adolescents learn how to deal with conflict, how to compromise and negotiate, and how to perspective-take (or to understand the perspective of others). Other psychological theories emphasize the special importance of close relationships to fulfill social needs, such as the belongingness hypothesis (Baumeister and Leary) and the interpersonal theory of psychiatry (Sullivan). Extrapolating from this, the failure to satisfy our needs for intimacy, companionship, and acceptance is thought to lead to psychological maladjustment. Implicit in all of these theories is that individuals who fail to interact with others in meaningful ways (even if it is because they simply prefer to spend time alone) may miss out on important developmental opportunities and suffer psychologically.

4. Benefits of Solitude

Of course, a discussion of the potential costs of solitude should be balanced by a consideration of the positive aspects of spending time alone. Psychological researchers have highlighted theoretical perspectives, and provide some empirical support, for the unique affordances of solitude (Burger; Larson, “Solitary Side”; Long et al.). For example, it has been suggested that experiences in solitude can provide a unique context for self-exploration and self-reflection, both of which are considered necessary for psychological health (Goossens). It has also been argued that solitude affords a distinctive context in which individuals can develop (and excel) intellectually, creatively, and spiritually (Long et al.). As well, scholars have emphasized the restorative features of certain types of solitude (e.g., being alone in nature) that can allow individuals to experience stress reduction and self-renewal (Korpela and Staats).

In support of these notions, research has linked certain forms of self-imposed solitude to numerous indices of psychological health and well-being. For instance, Larson found that adolescents who spent moderate amounts of time in solitude reported more positive psychological adjustment relative to those who spent no time and those who spent large amounts of time alone (“Emergence of Solitude”). Conversely, an aversion to solitude has also been negatively associated with creative talents and pursuits, likely because some solitude is required for the free-flowing thoughts and ideas, as well as the development and practice of many musical and artistic skills (e.g., playing a musical instrument; Csikszentmihalyi). ← 292 | 293 →

In terms of the engagement in specific solitary activities, constructive forms of solitude (e.g., reading, writing, collecting) have been linked with higher levels of psychological well-being (Adams, Leibbrandt, and Moon; Tinsley et al.). Perhaps due to the well-documented relaxation, healing, and restorative benefits of communing with nature, spending time in outdoor recreation and alone in nature are also consistently associated with positive well-being (Nisbet, Zelenski, and Murphy). Finally, there is some recent evidence that solitary time spent on the internet and communication-devices is related to decreases in perceived stress and loneliness (Teppers et al.). Of course, it is important to emphasize that it has been suggested that certain individuals may benefit the most from solitary experiences, such as those with strong preferences for solitude and introverted personalities (Burger; Teppers et al.).

The aforementioned research focused on community (non-clinical) samples of adolescents and adults, but it is worth noting that there is growing evidence supporting the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions (which typically involve promoting a sense of psychological solitude and meditation) with clinical populations (e.g., those suffering from anxiety, depression, substance-use problems; Salmon and Matarese). Such interventions have also been found to be helpful in the treatment of and recovery from physical illnesses, such as cancer and fibromyalgia (Cash et al.; Tamagawa et al.). However, in recent years, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques have also become increasingly recommended for the general psychological health of adults (Marchand) as well as children and adolescents (Parker et al.).

5. The Critical Role of Context

With most research questions in the field of psychology, things always end up being quite a bit more complicated than we initially imagined. This has certainly been the case when we have tried to ascertain the answer to our basic question: What are the psychological implications of solitude? In this final section, we briefly discuss the critical role of context as a mitigating factor of the costs and benefits of solitude.

5.1 Developmental Contexts

There are developmental factors to consider with regard to solitude. To begin with, the estimated percentage of waking time that Americans spend alone appears to increase substantially across the lifespan, from about 17% in childhood, to 30% in adults, to over 50% among the elderly (Larson, “Solitary Side”). There are also ← 293 | 294 → developmental differences in our attitudes toward being alone. For example, although children generally have negative attitudes toward solitude (Coplan et al., “Understanding Solitude”; Galanaki), more positive attitudes steadily emerge over the course of adolescence and into adulthood (Larson, “Emergence of Solitude”; Maes et al.).

Relatedly, the experience of loneliness also appears to vary significantly across the lifespan (Qualter et al.). For example, in a recent study with a nationally representative sample of over 16,000 participants, Maike Luhmann and Louise C. Hawkley found a complex and non-linear pattern of self-reported loneliness from late adolescence through to retirement. After rising from late adolescence to a peak at around age 30 years, there was a down trend in loneliness until about age 40. This was followed by an upward pattern with another peak around age 60 years, and then a steady decline with the lowest rates of loneliness found at age 75 years. However, after this, loneliness rose dramatically until the highest levels were observed among the very oldest in the sample.

To further complicate matters, we argue elsewhere that the very nature of solitary experiences likely change with age. For example, whereas younger children’s social experiences are more likely to be influenced by their parents and other external factors (i.e., attending school), adolescents and adults have greater personal control over and increased opportunities for self-selected solitary experiences. Notwithstanding, there may also come a time in the life of older adults where they are significantly (physically) impeded in their ability to actively seek out social contacts.

Perhaps the important developmental question is whether there are differential costs and benefits of solitude at different life stages. For example, spending too much time alone in early childhood may be particularly damaging because it deprives young children from important socialization experiences in the peer group, a critical context for social, emotional, cognitive, and moral development (Rubin, Bukowski, and Bowker). In adolescence, it appears to be particularly critical to spend time alone, in order to facilitate important developmental tasks such as individuation and identity formation (Goossens). Among the elderly, spending too much time alone appears to have a direct link with poorer physical health (Shankar et al.).

The debate as to when in development solitude might carry the greatest costs, or yield the greatest benefits, is yet to be resolved. It remains to be seen how these potential differences in the meaning and experiences of being alone across the lifespan speak to the relation between solitude and well-being. ← 294 | 295 →

5.2 Cultural Contexts

This volume focuses on cultures of solitude within the specific cultural context of the United States. However, psychology researchers have been increasingly interested in the similarities and differences in attitudes toward and implications of seeking solitude in other cultural contexts across the globe (Chen).

Western countries may value the desire to spend time alone as an autonomous expression of personal choice and independence, and as such, individuals who prefer to spend more time alone are not necessarily violating societal norms (Coplan, Ooi, and Nocita). However, many non-Western cultures place greater emphasis on interdependence and social affiliation. For example, in more collectivistic societies like China, an affinity for spending time alone may conflict with cultural norms regarding group orientation and be viewed as deviant and lead to exclusion and rejection by others (Liu et al., “Unsociability and Shyness”; Liu et al., “Shyness and Unsociability”). In Japan, the extreme seeking of solitude is viewed as a mental illness known as hikikomori. This culturally specific phenomenon among Japanese youth involves a prolonged period of self-imposed social isolation (Furlong).

In other cultures, seeking solitude is viewed more positively. For example, in Scandinavian countries such as Finland, the high positive value placed on ‘quietude’ makes the seeking of solitude a normative behavior, considered to be a “natural way of being” (Carbaugh, Berry, and Nurmikari-Berry 203). As well, solitary and unpresuming behaviors in African countries such as Nigeria may be more strongly encouraged than sociable behaviors, which might be interpreted as self-promoting and self-asserting (Bowker, Ojo, and Bowker). Thus, the meaning and potential implications of solitary behaviors are very much imbedded within societal and cultural contexts.

5.3 Computer-mediated Contexts

As a final consideration, rapid advances in computer-mediated forms of communication have created new contexts for social engagement that have profound implications for those who may seek solitude (Prizant-Passal, Shechner, and Aderka). For example, according to the social enhancement (“Rich Get Richer”) hypothesis (Kraut et al.; Walther), those individuals with already developed high quality off-line social relationships will benefit most from the internet as a social medium. In this regard, sociable individuals who have good social skills and many friends will use computer-mediated communications to further strengthen their existing social networks in the real world. On the other hand, individuals who may seek solitude because of struggles with face-to-face interactions may end up further ← 295 | 296 → worsening their real-world social relationships by retreating even more to virtual communications.

In contrast, the social enhancement (“Poor Get Richer”) hypothesis (Amichai-Hamburger and Hayat; Valkenburg, Schouten, and Peter) argues that individuals who are dissatisfied with their social relationships compensate by increased use of computer-mediated forms of communication. The internet can provide a less anxiety-provoking context for social interactions. Moreover, the anonymous nature of some internet-based communications may help such individuals explore their identity in a safe environment, work through feelings of self-consciousness, and hone social skills. These experiences might then translate into more successful face-to-face social interactions.

Of particular interest for our discussion, however, is how social networking technologies are challenging the very parameters of what it means to be alone. Recall Larson’s assertion that an individual would not be considered to be alone if they were engaged in a phone conversation with someone (“Solitary Side”). This definition clearly bears revisiting in light of new streams of computer-mediated social communications like texting and social networking applications (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter). If the individual in question was engaged in real-time verbal communication with a webcam (e.g., Skype, Facetime), this would clearly fall under Larson’s category of ‘not alone.’ However, in other instances (e.g., ‘liking’ or commenting on a Facebook post) this distinction may be less clear. Indeed, when being connected to social networks is as easy as reaching for your smart phone and is rapidly becoming the norm, it could be argued that we will soon reach a point in our society that we are never truly alone.

6. Seeking Solitude vs. Avoiding Social Interactions

The psychological study of solitude indicates that there are complex and varying implications of spending time alone. Moreover, there is growing evidence identifying a wide array of factors that impact upon the links between seeking solitude and well-being. One key factor is the importance of agency (Chua and Koestner). When imposed, solitude is often an undesired state that comes at a cost for the individual; when chosen, solitude can be a desirable experience that affords a variety of important benefits. However, as we have seen, some individuals who choose their solitude may still experience being alone in a profoundly negative way. Thus, as a final thought, more than just a function of agency, we would assert that solitude is also more likely to be problematic when it results from a choice to avoid social interaction (e.g., because of social anxiety) – and more likely to confer ← 296 | 297 → psychological benefits when it results from a preference to approach the desired state of spending time alone (e.g., affinity for aloneness).

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