Time alone makes us more creative, says new study

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Susan Devaney

Not all social withdrawal is detrimental to us. A new study highlights just how beneficial small periods of solitude can be. 

Do you secretly rejoice when your friend cancels your plans at the last minute? Do you cherish alone time in the bath, a bookshop or beyond? You’re not the only one.

While sometimes it can feel like extroverts are winning at life, a recent study has shown non-fearful social withdrawal is positively linked to creativity.

According to a psychologist at the University of Buffalo, one form of solitude – known as unsociability – is positively linked to being at your creative best.

The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differencesinvolved questioning 295 participants on the motivations behind their withdrawal from other people.

“When people think about the costs associated with social withdrawal, often times they adopt a developmental perspective,” says Julie Bowker, an associate professor in psychology, and lead author of the study. “During childhood and adolescence, the idea is that if you’re removing yourself too much from your peers, then you’re missing out on positive interactions like receiving social support, developing social skills and other benefits of interacting with your peers.”

Non-fearful social withdrawal is positively linked to creativity

“This may be why there has been such an emphasis on the negative effects of avoiding and withdrawing from peers,” adds Bowker, referring to a widespread belief that associates being alone with loneliness.

The study recognises that people withdraw from social interaction for multiple reasons, ranging from fear to anxiety or shyness. Still others withdraw because they dislike social interaction. However, some people are motivated by what the researchers term a “non-fearful preferences for solitude” – for example, to read or spend time on a computer.

Although this group of people “spend more time alone than with others, we know that they spend some time with peers,” says Bowker. “They are not antisocial. They don’t initiate interaction, but also don’t appear to turn down social invitations from peers. 

“Therefore, they may get just enough peer interaction so that when they are alone, they are able to enjoy that solitude. They’re able to think creatively and develop new ideas - like an artist in a studio or the academic in his or her office.”

Small moments of solitude allow new ideas to take shape

Throughout the study, both shyness and avoidance were related negatively to creativity. Bowker thinks that “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”.

But in general, the study highlight the benefits that solitude can hold, as a desirable and helpful state of being. 

“Over the years, unsociability has been characterised as a relatively benign form of social withdrawal. But, with the new findings linking it to creativity, we think unsociability may be better characterised as a potentially beneficial form of social withdrawal,” says Bowker.

In the increasingly fast and frenetic world we live in today, small moments of alone time are rare to come by. Throw greater creativity into the bargain, and we are well and truly sold.

Images: iStock / Roman Kraft / Alex Jones


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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for, writing about fashion, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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