The sudden transition from high school to college can get stressful. Anything from making new friends, to missing the old ones, to living away from home can become daunting.
One frequent pitfall during this transition is social isolation. Loneliness, of course, can have a seriously detrimental effect on a student’s mental health, potentially leading to depression.
However, according to the recent study, the 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.
The way the first-year students manage (or not) to navigate this change 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 period 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,” argues a team of researchers from the University of Rochester, Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and Ghent University in Belgium.
“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,” said Thuy-vy Nguyen, lead author of the study published in the journal of ‘Motivation and Emotion.’
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 will more likely experience 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.
Previous research had shown that spending too much time socializing during the first year of college–and as a result having little time for oneself–may be associated with poor adjustment.
But over the course of two studies, conducted with 147 first-year college students in the US (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 says 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,” says Nguyen.
First-year students who valued and enjoyed their alone time seemed to display greater psychological health.
According to the researchers, being alone does not make you a loner, which is a very easy stereotype to internalise when you first enter college–especially when you think that everyone around you is socializing when you are not.
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.