There is a common view that introverts don’t like interacting too much and would rather spend time alone, whilst extroverts spend all their time socialising and hate being alone. Is this a simplistic view of these personality traits? Could there be more to understand when considering who does and does not like spending time alone? Recent research has explored self-determined motivation for solitude and a preference for solitude, including how it relates to socialising. This post contributes to the discussion by also sharing some insights from my own research into qualities of time alone in midlife and how time alone is an undervalued activity in contemporary society.
The Common Myth
Society has a tendency to generalise a great deal. We often forget that the variation in people is far broader than the ‘average’ that we rely on as a measure of behaviour. The concept of introverts and extroverts was first presented by Carl Gustav Jung in the early 1900s. In very simple terms, Jung differentiated the types into those who tend to engage with the outside world in an active way (extroverts) and those that were more often engaged in the internal world of reflection (introverts).
However, as the concept of personality was developed it became more and more defined as those who are outgoing and sociable (extroverts) and those who are inhibited and shy (introverts). This starts to put value judgements onto the traits as through the lens of sociability. Being an introvert myself I take umbradge at this! I am a sociable person and can be quite outgoing at times. True I am not the life and soul of the party and actually prefer a quiet walk in the countryside to loud, busy environments, but I am not inhibited or shy. I need time with other people like anyone else, but I also need time alone.
For some time it was thought that the need for time alone, which is most often attributed to introverts, was due to high social anxiety, but recent studies have not found this to be the case. And extroverts can just as easily be socially anxious. Therefore, simplifying labelling people who are introverts and extroverts as avoidant or sociable is not helpful.
The Role of Self-Determination
There is a whole area of research into self-determination which I will not cover here. However, a key part of a person’s enjoyment of time alone or of being sociable is having the autonomy to make your own choices, to have a level of freedom. When this choice is taken away difficulties ensue. This is what Averill and Sunderarajan (2014) call ‘psuedo’ solitude, which is experienced without choice, and often leads to lonelines and separation from others.
Some people actively seek out solitude. Sometimes it is to get away from the busyness of life. This is a common way for introverts to recharge and recalibrate themseles ready to get back out there again. It would, however, not be helpful if the only time anyone sought out solitude was to get away from others. It has been found that intentionally spending quality time alone has many beneficial qualities (Coplan & Bowker, 2014). In cultures where there is little opportunity to spend time alone, it has been found that loneliness is high (Heu et al., 2021). This might seen like a paradox, but recent research is finding that loneliness is often felt when there is too much interaction and busyness, especially when there is little opportunity to escape.
Benefits of Time Alone
It’s important to distinguish between decisions that are avoidant and ones that are positively felt. Spending time alone is beneficial when it is a choice that is done for its own sake. As an introvert you may need time away from others, and your preference may be to spend time alone rather than interacting, but this isn’t through fear, or a dislike of people or social situations. Many people, introverts and extroverts alike, simply enjoy time alone (Coplan et al., 2015).
In a recent preprint, meaning the study has yet to be peer reviewed, Nguyen et al. (2018) found that personality types such as introversion did not correlate with preference for time alone, concluding that personality had little to do with the self-determined action of solitude. They found that people who rated themselves has high in spending time alone did so out of enjoyment, found it easy to resist social pressures in favour of caring for themselves, and used the time to self-regulate their emotions and behaviours, and learn about themselves.
The benefits of intentionally spending some time alone is to create a contemplative space for reflection and calming the noise of daily demands. This is called ‘inner directed’ solitude and is a valuable space for creative pursuits (Averill & Sunderarajan, 2014). Spiritually it can be used to conteplate the meaning of life, to feel spiritually connected (Ost Mor et al., 2021). In short, there are many positive ways of using time alone, and I would argue this is the missing factor that is valuble for personal growth and development.
What Both Introverts and Extroverts Should Do
Ok, as a coach using the word ‘should’ raises eyebrows! But I’m using it here to encourage you, whatever your personality trait, or your preferences, to give time alone a chance. Find out for yourself how much it helps you refocus, problem solve, imagine and shape each day. It only needs a few minutes of focused and intentional time to be alone. This doesn’t have to be in a place where there is physically no one around for miles. If finding space to be physcially alone is challenging, it can be at your desk with your work colleagues around you. Being alone is being with yourself, in your space, and imagining yourself in a calm and quiet space. Let your imagination take you there.
I’ll leave you with a message from the wonderful late Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book ‘Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World full of Noise’ (2015) he speaks of ‘radio non-stop thinking’. I would add to that with non-stop doing. I invite you to spend just a little time not doing and not thinking about the future, about the past, and just let yourselve be. Silence doesn’t have to company solitude of course, but by learning about the stillness of silence, we are better able to tune into ourselves.
You realize the deep meaning of being alone when you are established firmly in the here and
now, and you are aware of what is happening in the present moment. You use your mindfulness to become aware of every feeling, every perception you have. You’re aware of what’s happening around you, but you also stay fully present within yourself; you don’t lose yourself to the surrounding conditions. That is real solitude. (Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 41, 2015)
Averill, J. R., & Sunderarajan, L. (2014). Experiences of solitude: Issues of Assessment, Theory and Culture. In R.J. Coplan & J.C. Bowker (Eds.), The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, social withdrawal and being alone (pp. 90–109). John Wiley & Sons.
Coplan, R.J., & Bowker, J. C. (2014). All alone: Multiple perspectives on the study of solitude. In The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal and Being Alone. Wiley Blackwell.
Coplan, Robert J., Ooi, L. L., & Nocita, G. (2015). When One Is Company and Two Is a Crowd: Why Some Children Prefer Solitude. Child Development Perspectives, 9(3), 133–137. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12131
Heu, L. C., Hansen, N., van Zomeren, M., Levy, A., Ivanova, T. T., Gangadhar, A., & Radwan, M. (2021). Loneliness across cultures with different levels of social embeddedness: A qualitative study. Personal Relationships, 28(2), 379–405. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12367
Nguyen, T. T., Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. (2018, August 20). Who Enjoys Solitude? Autonomous Functioning (But Not Introversion) Predicts Self-Determined Motivation (But Not Preference) for Solitude. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/sjcwg
Ost Mor, S., Palgi, Y., & Segel-Karpas, D. (2021). The Definition and Categories of Positive Solitude: Older and Younger Adults’ Perspectives on Spending Time by Themselves. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 93(4), 943–962. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091415020957379
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