Psychologists, researchers, and pundits are obsessed with loneliness. They worry about it, write about it, and issue dire warnings of what might befall people who experience it (which is probably just about everyone, at one point or another). That’s reasonable, up to a point – loneliness is painful and extreme doses of it can have troubling implications.

Some of the current preoccupation with loneliness is probably attributable, in part, to the fact that the number of people living alone has been growing for decades. But linking loneliness to the rise of solo living misses one of the most important motivators of the trend – huge numbers of people are living alone because they want to. They aren’t stuck with it, they chose it. In fact, in an arrangement known as “living apart together,” some people who are committed couples, including even married couples, choose to have places of their own.

If you were to look for studies of the personality characteristics of people who are lonely, you would probably find hundreds. Not so for people who like being alone. That is starting to change. Advances in our understanding of such people will be helped along by the publication of a scale measuring the “Desire for Being Alone.”

People who score as high on the Desire for Being Alone tend to agree with statements such as “When I am alone, I feel relaxed” and “I like to be completely alone.” They disagree with statements such as “I feel uncomfortable when I’m alone” and “Being alone quickly gets to be too much for me.”

The good news is that there is such a scale and it has been used in several studies. The bad news is that, so far as I know, it has only been used in studies of couples. The researchers had legitimate reasons for this, but it still strikes me as somewhat ironic that even when we finally get to learn something about people who like being alone, all the people we learn about are coupled.

Two German studies were reported. The first was an internet study, in which the participants were 1,160 people who had been in a serious sexual relationship for at least a year. In the second, 578 couples who had been together for at least a year were recruited from mass mailings sent to different areas of Germany. Ages ranged from 18 through 70-something, with an average age of about 35 for the internet sample and about 42 for the sample recruited by mail.

The personality characteristics that were studied were sociability, plus the “Big Five” traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. (If you want to try to predict the results, you can do so now before reading on.)

The authors also measured enjoyment of friends (which they called “Desire for Affiliation”) and wanting to be close to a partner (which they called “Desire for Closeness”). The friendship-relevant scale included items such as “In the presence of friends, I feel relaxed” and “I like to be with friends.” The partner-relevant scale included items such as “In the presence of my partner, I feel relaxed” and “I like being very close to my partner.”

Perhaps the most intuitive prediction about people who like being alone is that they are not very extraverted or sociable. The two studies, though, only found hints of that, suggesting that even extraverts can long for some time to themselves. The stronger findings were that people who like being with friends are more extraverted and sociable.

Two personality traits were characteristic of people who like to be alone: They are more open and less neurotic. Openness, as measured by the Big Five, is an openness to experience. Open people often have broad interests, and they tend be curious, imaginative, artistic, and unconventional. Neurotic people tend to be tense, irritable, moody, and lacking in confidence.

The studies also assessed other characteristics, including loneliness. The people who liked being alone were not very likely to experience loneliness.

So after all the angst and hand-wringing about the growing number of people living alone, and the suspicion sometimes cast upon people who like their time alone, what is actually true of people who like to live alone is this: They are more open and less neurotic. And they probably are not lonely.

Or at least that’s what’s true of people who like their time alone but who have been part of a couple for at least a year. What about single people? As usual, there’s no research on them.

Reference: Hagemeyer, B., Neyer, F. J., Neberich, W., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2013). The ABC of social desires: Affiliation, being alone, and closeness to partner. European Journal of Personality, 27, 442-457.

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