New to College? Spend Some Time Alone.

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Seeking solitude for the right reasons can be good for first-year college students, research suggests. How young adults manage to navigate the stressful transition to college has long-term implications for their academic performance and ability to stick with their studies.
Research has shown that one frequent pitfall during this transition from high school to college is social isolation. Loneliness, of course, can have a seriously detrimental effect on a student’s mental health, potentially leading to depression. But being alone isn’t necessarily bad, suggest new findings in the journal Motivation and Emotion.“Approaching solitude for its enjoyment and intrinsic values is linked to psychological health, especially for those who don’t feel as if they belong to their social groups,” lead author Thuy-vy Nguyen said, who received her doctorate in psychology from the University of Rochester in 2018 and who undertook a large part of the research for this study in Rochester.“These findings highlight the importance of cultivating the ability to enjoy and value solitary time as a meaningful experience, rather than trying to disregard it, or escape from it,” Nguyen said, who’ll join Durham University in England this fall as an assistant professor. 
Alone for the Right Reasons
What then marks the difference between useful and potentially detrimental solitude? The key is positive motivation, according to the researchers. A healthy, autonomous seeking of alone time is associated with greater self-esteem, a greater sense of feeling related to others and feeling less lonely. Conversely, someone who wants to be alone because of negative social experiences more likely will feel the negative effects of solitude, such as isolation or social withdrawal. The reasons matter as they determine how we experience solitude and the benefits we can get from it, the study concludes. Nguyen is building on the research of her mentors, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, co-founders of self-determination theory (SDT). The theoretical framework of SDT fits nicely into the investigation of how individuals’ motivations for spending time alone contribute to well-being, the researchers note. Per definition, autonomous motivation for being alone refers to a person’s decision to spend time in solitude in a manner that is valuable and enjoyable for the person.
Time for Yourself
Previous research had shown that spending too much time socializing during the first year of college and as a result, having little time spent alone may be associated with poor adjustment. But over the course of two studies, conducted with 147 first-year college students in the United States (testing for self-esteem) and 223 in Canada (testing for loneliness and relatedness), the team was able to untangle the interaction between new students’ social life and their motivation for spending time alone as a predictor of their successful adjustment to college life. Nguyen said the interplay between solitary time and our social experiences has not been empirically studied before, at least not in this way.“In previous research, it has been framed in ways that those with more access to social connections tend to have a better time in solitude. But in our study, having a healthy motivation for solitude actually is associated with wellness for those who have less access to social connections,” Nguyen said.
Key findings include:
  • First-year students who valued and enjoyed their alone time seemed to display greater psychological health
  • Solitary time can be useful for detaching oneself from societal pressures and getting back to one’s own values and interests, which in turn allows for better behaviour regulation (with a greater sense of autonomy, choice, and self-concordance)
  • The association between freely chosen motivation for solitude and psychological health is stronger for those who don’t feel they belong in college
  • The findings held across two independent samples of first-year students one at a private university in the United States and one at a public university in Canada.
“Being alone does not make you a loner, which is a very easy stereotype to internalize when you first enter college especially when you think that everyone around you is socializing when you are not,” adds Nguyen. “Solitude is a personal experience for everyone, so it is a time for you to take if you want, and just explore different ways to make it a meaningful and enjoyable experience for you.”