Introverts, Extroverts, and The Mutual Benefits Of Solitude

Artwork by Agathe Dananaï

The idea of being left alone with nothing but your own thoughts is a frightful prospect for some, but why does solitude get such a bad rap? One study emphasised this fear by presenting participants with two choices; spend 15 minutes alone in a room, or skip the alone time in favour of self-administering electrical shocks - astonishingly, the latter was the most popular choice. With this in mind, I begun to wonder why it is we hate the idea of being on our own and if it is really as daunting as we seem to think.

Talking about being alone is hard. As a result of recent cultural shifts supporting self-care, introverts - as well as extroverts - may face judgment for not finding the ‘right’ balance between social time and alone time. If you enjoy being alone you risk being labelled as ‘anti-social’, ‘boring’, or an ‘old soul’, but if you hate being alone, people may read your rampant sociability as a defect, something that reflects a well-covered ‘inner turmoil’. To address the haters on both sides, we’ll state it clearly; there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be on your own, and there is also nothing wrong with not wanting to be on your own.

Individual preference, of course, plays a role in determining whether being alone has a positive or negative impact on your well-being. As you may already know, extroverts often dislike being alone, whereas introverts tend to prefer it. According to estimates, extroverts outnumber introverts by about three to one. These lesser spotted introverts are often misconstrued as shy or socially anxious, but this isn’t necessarily true. Introverts do tend to be more quiet, reserved, and introspective, but these characteristics aren’t fostered out of fear of interaction: they simply don’t like to spend the bulk of their time with other people. Introverts are inward turning, meaning they’re more focused on internal thoughts, feelings and moods rather than seeking out external stimulation. Extroverts however, fall on the opposite end of the spectrum by being outward turning and focusing mostly on external stimulation.

But what makes an introvert an introvert and an extrovert an extrovert? Science has begun to show the possible causes. It all starts with the system responsible for controlling how much information we take in while we’re awake (this is called our ‘reticular activating system’ or ‘RAS’) and this same system regulates our arousal levels (...not like that). In response to a threat, our RAS increases arousal levels in order for us to be alert and responsive to potential danger. And while each individual has a basic set point in terms of arousal levels, some people tend to have a much higher set point, while others have a much lower one.

Introverts have been found to have naturally high levels of arousal meaning they are more continuously alert and taking in information from their surroundings. As a result of their naturally high arousal levels, introverts often need to escape from this overstimulation to recharge and process. This doesn’t mean that the average introvert wants to be alone all the time - they simply may feel the need to retreat to a quiet place to wind down after a lot of social interaction.

Extroverts on the other hand have a naturally low level of arousal, meaning they need to search out external stimulation to wake up their RAS. Extroverts become bored very easily, and in the search for some arousal, their minds will quickly bring up arousal inducing thoughts and memories - these memories can often be things extroverts would preferably forget. In order to handle these thoughts, or prevent them from popping up, extroverts prefer to surround themselves with people to bounce their emotions off of.

For both introverts and extroverts, it’s all about finding a healthy balance of social interaction and alone time. Darwin’s pyramid of survival firmly places community & family at the foundations of healthy living, affirming that we human beings are social animals. Research suggests that social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, and even early death. But research is also increasingly showing that there are real benefits to solitude too.

Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University, Thuy-vy Nguyen, studies solitude and has found evidence which shows that solitude doesn’t hurt your social life - it might actually improve it! Solitude helps us to regulate our emotions and calms the mind to help us better engage with those around us in healthy ways. A regular amount of alone time not only significantly improves relationships with others but also allows you to be more creative and confident!

However, solitude is only beneficial when it’s regulated. This year has given all of us a whole new understanding of solitude (whether we wanted it or not), and what most of us have learnt is that it's vital to maintain healthy relationships and spend your alone time focusing on yourself, relaxing and cultivating your passions. You’re only doing it right if you feel good, and alone time does not count if you spend it working from home. One survey showed that 64% of freelancers cite feeling loneliness as a result of their job and it’s not hard to see why. For freelancers and creatives especially, who’s home and workplace are often synonymous, it’s hard to differentiate between work life and personal life. Alone time, home time and work time can easily blur into one, making healthy solitude a little more challenging. It’s difficult to switch off, there’s pressure to work religiously in order to ‘make it’, plus when you're always in your work space, why not work? This tends to be the infamous path taken by every creative before major burnout.

We need to change our view on solitude, refocus the perspective and reframe alone time as some of the most valuable time available to us. If you lean towards extroversion, when you picture solitude, you may visualise laying in a dark room with nothing to do, but solitude doesn’t have to look like this at all. You can do anything by yourself - bar maybe table tennis. Doing things by yourself allows you to enjoy activities you love at your own pace and in your own way and this can be anything! Take yourself out for lunch, go for a walk, spend too much of your paycheck in the summer sales with no one else around to judge you! Doing things you love alone has many benefits. It makes your interests your top priority. It allows you to get to know yourself and your own passions. It’s an opportunity to make choices and focus your attention on you without worrying about pleasing others.

We live in a culture where we often confuse being alone for loneliness. If we can remove the stigma of being alone and learn to appreciate time by ourselves, we can stop seeing being alone as a negative thing and fully embrace the benefits of healthy solitude. Whether you’re an introvert who thrives on solitude or an outspoken extrovert who loves to socialise, a little high-quality alone time will go a long way for you and your wellbeing.

Article by Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse