Many people disconnect from social activities and seek solitude to improve their well-being. This “Social detox” is a common lifestyle choice when things get overwhelming. Do people feel better when they spend some alone-time and delete social media apps?
Research suggests that a lot depends on a person’s motivation, choice, and the intensity of detox. Being alone on purpose is a choice, but being lonely isn’t.
Loneliness is associated with a wide range of negative effects like reduced life-satisfaction, poor coping with mental illness, increased chances of mental health issues, increased negative thoughts, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. But, deliberate alone-time and social detox have a number of positive effects.
Loneliness is different from being alone based on how much control a person has over social interactions. Loneliness, a passive state, is clearly linked to reduced well-being. However, alone-time & social detox might improve well-being.
A personality trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is important in understanding why some people choose to detoxify. This temperament describes how sensitive people are to physical sensations, emotional experiences, thoughts, and details in an experience. High sensory processing sensitivity can easily overwhelm a person. It can draw excessive attention to details that trigger multiple trains of distressing thoughts. At its core, sensory processing sensitivity is the depth of information processing, awareness of subtleties in the environment, ease of getting overwhelmed, and emotional processing/responses.
While this trait means “highly sensitive person,” it does not mean b*tthurt.
A high SPS has both positive and negative consequences. Some research indicates that SPS makes people prone to anxiety and fixating on negative details. But, on the plus side, high SPS is also associated with creativity and increased positive experiences.
Researchers propose that sensory processing sensitivity begins with an interaction of emotional reactions and depth of processing which makes people aware of details and that, potentially, overwhelms. In the context of this article – loneliness, alone-time, and social detox – a person might choose to detox because of the overwhelming nature of highly stimulating social experiences. These can be weekend benders, a series of small-talks, parties/events, social media chats, etc.
In a recent study using a number of tests and in-depth interviews to understand well-being in high SPS people, researchers found 7 factors that positively affected their well-being – positive social relationships balanced by times of solitude, connecting with nature, contemplative practices, emotional self-regulation, practicing self-compassion, having a sense of meaning, and hope/optimism. Balance & harmony in all aspects of life was important to the participants. According to extensive research in positive psychology, these factors are causally linked to an increase in happiness and well-being.
Times of solitude, or more specifically, quality alone-time, was a purposeful activity high SPS people engaged in to improve their well-being. They also highlighted that low-intensity positive emotions, along with a sense of balance, self-awareness & acceptance, and harmony are the key features of their happiness.
Quotes from their interviews:
“solitude is something that’s very important for me to maintain some of my sanity and my energy”
“it’s really important that I stay with myself”
“I get a lot of invitations, and I always feel obligated that I need to catch up with this person, and this person and this person […] but now I’m like, no, I’ve had one of those weeks when I need to go home”
Motivation plays an important role in how spending time alone helps with well-being. A study attempting to tease out motivation confirms an intuitive insight. For adolescents (10-18 y/o) and emerging adults (18-25 y/o), seeking solitude because of external reasons is associated with social anxiety, depressive symptoms, and loneliness but seeking it for self-determined intrinsic reasons is associated with improved well-being. When people justify solitude because they have no other option or they are dissatisfied with their options, alone-time can turn into loneliness. And when people travel solo or go out to clear their mind because they want to, alone-time can have a positive impact on mental health.
Older people are often at risk of total social isolation. In a 6-day longitudinal study where only 11% of the active waking time was spent in solitude (hinting at alone-time, not loneliness), researchers reported a link between quality of social interactions and emotions. Those who had unpleasant and conflict-stained social interactions, solitude reduced the intensity of negative emotions. According to the researchers, solitude is globally linked with lower intensity emotions – positive as well as negative.
College students who feel like they don’t belong may benefit from solitude if they autonomously seek alone-time. A short longitudinal research on Canadian and American students suggests that intrinsically motivated alone-time is linked to high self-esteem, a greater sense of relatedness, and lesser loneliness. The results of their study also showed that the positive effect of solitary time is more pronounced for students whose parents endorse and encourage independence. This supports the idea that spending time alone and wanting to be alone doesn’t necessarily point to mental health issues.
A relatively understudied and newly conceptualized phenomenon is Aloneliness – the negative feeling about not spending enough time by yourself. Aloneliness comes with an unmet want of solitude. People often express the intent and the motivation to spend quality time by themselves but external reasons often interfere and make it difficult to act on me-time. In a series of 4 studies, researchers established this new concept as a possible explanation for how solitude affects well-being and mental health.
While loneliness is understood as social dissatisfaction, aloneliness is understood as asocial dissatisfaction – a mirror image of loneliness. It is a mismatch between the intention to spend time alone and the actual time spent alone. High intention and low time alone is high aloneliness. Shy people may experience high aloneliness if their desire to be by themselves is not met and have to socialize against their liking. They found that high aloneliness is moderately linked to depression regardless of how much time they spend alone. On the other hand, low aloneliness and high time spent alone is linked to an increase in depressive symptoms. This finding fits with the general understanding that being forced to be alone, beyond your capacity, is more about being lonely – a clear indicator of poor mental health.
After all, the need to spend time alone for self-motivated reasons is a valid way to reduce stress. When lifestyle aspects interfere with that need and it’s unfulfilled, it may induce more stress. Managing aloneliness may be a potentially useful way to make solitude work for you.
Social interactions (and the lack thereof) affect emotions in another unique way. Researchers argue that social interactions create a feedback loop with the initial emotional state which may amplify the emotion as we socialize. In a way, this explains why solitude reduces the intensity of emotions – the feedback mechanism is cut off.
When it comes to social media detox, the benefits can’t be easily teased out. A study done on 130 college students showed that there is no effect of social media abstinence on well-being. This is counterintuitive because deleting social media apps is a common strategy to seek solitude. However, in their experiment which tested social media abstinence for upto 4 weeks, participants were asked to abstain for the sake of research. Based on previous findings, the self-motivated intention to seek solitude is the key factor in creating positive effects of detox. This core aspect was not addressed. So, perhaps, unless a person is truly motivated for self-determined reasons, social media detox might have relationship with mental health & well-being.
A different set of factors drive our social media behavior and many aspects of it have positive and negative consequences on mental health. Here is a starting point to understand how social media affects mental health and how it can apply to loneliness, aloneliness, and passive social behavior.
Recent studies show that people who seek solitude for self-motivated reasons experience improved well-being. It’s a key part of happiness for sensitive people. But, solitude due to external reasons induce loneliness. Even an unmet need for alone-time (Aloneliness) can reduce well-being.
On a slightly unrelated note, there is an extreme version of loneliness, social withdrawal, and aloneliness in Japan – the Hikikomori syndrome – prolonged, deliberate social withdrawal to the point of skipping work and school by staying locked up in a house. This cultural phenomenon is most commonly seen in older, college drop-out males. One study suggests that being Hikikomori is strongly associated with past psychiatric treatment and a number of related symptoms like obsessive behaviors, social anxiety, interpersonal anxieties, and emotional dysregulation. Another one points toward poor attachment and emotional dependence on others. Along with those factors, factors like initial aloneliness and externally forced solitude may contribute – time will tell.
What does all of this research point to for social detoxing?
- Loneliness and alone-time because the alternatives are bad is associated with poor mental health
- Alone-time, especially for highly sensitive people, can improve happiness and the quality of life
- Aloneliness – the negative feeling of not spending enough time alone – is an important need to be fulfilled for improved well-being
- Intrinsic motivation in seeking solitude is the strongest way social detoxing can help
- Alone time reduces the intensity of positive and negative emotions
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Soon after researchers publish new insights, I update these articles with their findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.