Exploring the art and science of being alone, found at PsychologyToday.com
We humans are social creatures, but the world of solitude is also an important aspect of our psychological lives. In this blog, I examine what psychological science tells us about solitude’s role in our development, from adolescence to adulthood, and how it relates to well-being and identity. Along the way, I offer insights and reflections on our varied and complex relationship with being alone and introduce practical skills for cultivating solitude in our daily lives.
My research broadly focuses on socio-emotional and identity development during adolescence and adulthood. I have studied social class and religious identity, and am currently investigating the identity processes of sojourners – people who live, work, or study abroad.
Most recently I have focused on the domain of solitude, conceptualized as spending time alone by choice. Using both quantitative (survey) and qualitative (interview) methods, my studies explore what motivates people to spend time by themselves, what they gain from solitude, how social media and digital devices affect people’s capacity to be alone, how the need for solitude changes over the lifespan, and what skills people utilize to enjoy their time alone. I am also interested in how personality, gender, class, and culture shape solitude experiences and am developing new studies with these factors in mind.
- Thomas, V. (2023). The psychological affordances of solitude in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 11 (3), 611-625. doi/10.1177/21676968231151982.
This study investigated the purposes and meanings that solitude held for 43 emerging adults (ages 18-25). In-depth interviews asked them to share positive and negative stories about time alone, as well as their motivations to be alone and the benefits they received from it. Drawing on Gibson’s theory of affordances (1979), we analyzed these interviews to identify the psychological functions that the environment of solitude offers. Analysis revealed five positive affordances (focused attention, restoration, reflection, freedom, and transcendence), two negative affordances (loneliness and rumination), and one mixed affordance (emotional expression). Affordances as an interactive match between environment and person, and the importance of pupose and the capacity to perceive such affordances, are discussed in relation to the benefits of solitude for emerging adults.
- Thomas, V. (2023). Solitude skills and the private self. Qualitative Psychology, 10(1), 121-139. https://doi.org/10.1037/qup0000218
A qualitative study identified the skills adults utilized when engaging in positive solitude. Eight solitude skills were organized within three central concepts: Connect with Self included the skills of enjoying solitary activities, emotion regulation, and introspection; the skills included in Protect Time were making time to be alone, using that time mindfully, and validating one’s need for solitude; and the skills of Find a Balance included heeding signals to enter solitude and knowing when to exit solitude. Knowledge of these skills may be valuable for those who volitionally enter solitude as well as those who find themselves in unwanted isolation.
- Smith, J., Thomas, V., & Azmitia, M. (2022). Happy alone? Motivational profiles of solitude and well-being among senior living residents. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 0(0). doi.org/10.1177/00914150221112283
We surveyed 397 senior living residents (average age = 83) about their motivations for solitude and their experiences of being alone versus spending time with other people. We identified four profiles based on their scores of positive and negative motivations for solitude: Low Motivation (a.k.a. Social Seekers), Positive Motivation (a.k.a. Solitude Seekers), Negative Motivation (a.k.a. Social Avoiders) and Dual Motivation (a.k.a. Ambivalent Loners). Overall, Social and Solitude Seekers displayed greater levels of well-being on both hedonic (e.g., life satisfaction) and eudaimonic (e.g., personal growth) measures; in particular, the Solitude Seekers showed significantly higher levels of psychological richness compared to the other three profiles. These findings disrupt the dominant narrative that equates older adulthood with loneliness and isolation; rather, it appears that some older adults welcome solitude for purposes of contemplation, restoration, and time to engage in enjoyable activities and meaningful pursuits.
Click here to read a brief overview of the full study.
- Jones, L., Nguyen, T. V. T., Thomas, V., Weinstein, N., Qualter, P., Heweings, R., Karania, V., Smith, M., & Cseh, G. (2023). Positive connections and solitude: Contribution to loneliness interventions and policy development. [White Paper]. Buckinghamshire New University, United Kingdom.
A team of researchers from the U.K. and the U.S. collaborated to conduct a review the multi-dimensional experiences of aloneness in the psychological literature. Our results culminated in a white paper that can help inform policy makers who are concerned about a loneliness epidemic among their populations. We hope this white paper stimulates deeper conversation about what it means to be alone, and importantly distinguishes positive solitude from the negative states of loneliness and isolation.
Click here to read the white paper.
- Thomas, V., Balzer Carr, B., Azmitia, M., & Whittaker, S. (2021). Alone and online: Understanding the relationships between social media, solitude, and psychological adjustment. Psychology of Popular Media, 10(2), 201–211. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000287
An experience sampling study showed that the use of social media during solitude has a paradoxical relationship to psychological adjustment; although it elevates one’s current mood state, it is also linked to low identity development and high trait loneliness. Social media use may be a form of mood regulation when one does not wish to be alone. Individuals who consistently spend time on their devices when alone may bypass important psychosocial developmental processes gained through solitude.
- Thomas, V. & Azmitia, M. (2019). Motivation matters: Development and validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale-Short Form (MSS-SF). Journal of Adolescence, 70(1), 33-42. DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2018.11.004
Motivation is an overlooked but crucial factor in determining whether solitude is psychologically beneficial or risky. This paper describes the development and validation of the Motivation for Solitude Scale – Short-Form (MSS-SF), a measure grounded in Self-Determination Theory that differentiates between intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations for solitude. The scale was validated with emerging adults (N = 803) and adolescents (N = 176). Engaging in solitude for extrinsic, not self-determined reasons was associated with loneliness, social anxiety, and depressive symptomatology; in contrast, solitude chosen for intrinsic, self-determined reasons was positively correlated with well-being, for emerging adults in particular.
- Thomas, V. & Azmitia, M. (2016). Tapping into the app: Updating the Experience Sampling Method for the 21st century. Emerging Adulthood, 4(1), 60-67. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167696815618489
Research with emerging adults is largely based on retrospective self-reports that can be limited by poor recall, current mood, and social desirability. To address these shortcomings, Larson and Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the experience sampling method (ESM) with electronic pagers and paper–pencil surveys. The increasing ubiquity of smartphone ownership allows researchers to take ESM to the next level: developing smartphone applications programmed to alert participants, collect responses, and send data directly to a database for analysis. This article suggests types of research questions relevant to emerging adults that can be pursued using ESM and reviews the challenges and benefits of using this technology.
- Thomas, V., Azmitia, M., & Whittaker, S. (2016). Unplugged: Exploring the costs and benefits of constant connection. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 540-548. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.078
This large-scale lifespan study surveyed 446 participants ages 14–79 about their feelings and attitudes toward unplugging from computer-mediated communication (CMC) for 24 hours and asked about their actual recent experiences of unplugging. As predicted, younger people reported more negative feelings about unplugging, and people who reported higher scores on a loneliness survey also expressed more negative feelings. Open-ended responses revealed that participants felt a mix of emotions about unplugging from CMC and were ambivalent about its use for connection; “connecting with family and friends” was listed as both a loss and a gain of unplugging. In addition, prior experience unplugging predicted less anxiety about a future anticipated unplugging experience.
- Thomas, V. & Azmitia, M. (2014). Does class matter? Examining the centrality of social class identity for emerging adults. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 14(3), 195-213. https://doi.org/10.1080/15283488.2014.921171
Social class identity development remains poorly understood, especially given beliefs in meritocracy and the American Dream. This mixed methods study explored the importance and meanings of social class in 104 college-going emerging adults. As predicted, awareness of social class occurred primarily during social comparison encounters with peers. Unexpectedly, participants rated social class as affecting their everyday experiences more than gender or ethnicity; upper-class students reported the highest importance ratings. The article highlights narratives of upper-class guilt and privilege and working-class anger and pride, and considers the implications of contradictory ratings and exempt positioning.