Previous research has shown that some solitude is not necessarily bad for mental health, but the new study is the first to show that it can actively improve mental health by fostering creativity.
People who make more ‘me time’ for themselves reduce their stress and risks of depression and anxiety by doing creative activities. With the season of togetherness upon us, the new study is a reminder to take time out to be alone and refuel your creative juices.
New University of Buffalo research explains how some intentional solitude differs from fearful social avoidance and can be good for mental health.
Taking time to be alone can boost your creativity, new research shows
Creativity reduces stress by helping us to reach a ‘flow state,’ in which the brain works at optimal efficiency, and our brain releases dopamine to reward us for both creating and solving problems in the process.
In turn, that stress reduction has been proven to translate to better heart health, and a reduced risk in dementia.
Studies have gone so far as to declare that social interaction plays a ‘central role’ in both mental and physical health, but a room full of people is not the most conducive environment to creative activities.
Participants in the University of Buffalo study who chose to spend time alone were more creative than others.
Undeniably, everyone needs a break from the hustle and bustle of public spaces, but little research has documented the tangible health benefits of alone time.
The University of Buffalo study surveyed nearly 300 people who said that their privacy was important to them, asking why they liked their solitude, and how they tended to spend that time.
Those that felt timid or fearful around other people tended to make less productive use of their alone time. But many of the respondents simply preferred to be alone because it gave them an opportunity to work on creative pursuits that spending time with company didn’t.
The former group is more classically antisocial, while the latter may simply be unsociable, meaning that they do socialize, but prefer to be alone.
‘When people think about the costs associated with social withdrawal, often times they adopt a developmental perspective,’ said lead study author Dr Julie Bowker.
Antisocial behavior includes avoiding social contact, but can develop into more worrisome habits like lying and violence. Parents, teachers and developmental psychologists are watchful for signs of antisocial behavior in children because it can predict a lifetime of destructiveness and strained or failed relationships.
‘Shy and avoidant individuals may be unable to use their solitude time happily and productively, maybe because they are distracted by their negative cognitions and fears,’ says Dr Bowker.
But this is not the case for people that are not choosing to be alone out of fear.
‘They may get just enough peer interaction so that when they are alone, they are able to enjoy that solitude,’ Bowker says.
Instead, these ‘unsociable’ people are ‘able to think creatively and develop new ideas – like an artist in a studio or the academic in his or her office,’ she adds.
Constant engagement through social media, according to a growing body of psychology research, may now be reaching a level that is actually detrimental to mental health. Anecdotally, psychologists have observed that an appropriate amount of time alone can be beneficial in the long run, reducing the risks of depression and increasing empathy.
This study shows that intentional intervals of alone time have more immediate benefits for creative thinking and activities.
‘Motivation matters,’ says Dr Bowker, ‘the new findings linking it to creativity, we think unsociability may be better characterized as a potentially form of social withdrawal.’