Psychology research has tended to portray solitude as an unpleasant experience. Studies conducted in the 1970s and 1990s suggested a clear pattern: people usually felt less happy when alone as compared with having company. More recently, researchers showed that their volunteers preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit in silence with their own thoughts. However, in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a research team led by They-vy Nguyen at the University of Rochester explains the shortcomings in this earlier research and presents a more nuanced picture, showing how 15 minutes solitude can have beneficial effects on our emotions. Their results suggest that if you want to lower the intensity of your emotions, positive and negative, time spent alone may be just the ticket.
The research from the 70s and 90s measured emotion on a scale from positive to negative, overlooking the possibility that our positive and negative emotions can fluctuate independently, and that both positive and negative emotions can be either high arousal (such as excitement or anger) or low arousal (such as calmness and loneliness). Meanwhile, the electric shock research involved volunteers being instructed that they must actively think, which may have been aversive as compared with simply being in solitude without more specific instructions.
For their new paper, Nguyen’s team first asked 75 student participants to spend 15 minutes sitting alone in a comfortable chair at the psych lab, away from their digital devices and without engaging in any activity. For comparison, 39 other students spent the same time chatting with a research assistant. Before and after this 15 minute period, all the students completed a questionnaire measuring their “high arousal” positive and negative emotions (examples being excited, interested, scared, distressed). The results were clear: the participants in the solitude condition, but not the comparison group, showed reductions in their positive and negative emotions – what the researchers described as a “deactivation effect”.
A follow-up study with more students found the same deactivating effect of 15 minutes of solitude on high arousal emotions, but also added in a measure of low-arousal positive and negative emotions (such as calm, relaxed, sad, lonely) and found that these were increased by time alone. It seems solitude doesn’t have a simple emotional effect that can be caricatured as good or bad; rather, it changes the intensity of our inner experience, both positive and negative: accentuating low-key emotions, while dialling down our stronger feelings.
The same pattern was found for a comparison group who spent the time alone reading a moderately interesting article rather than in their own thoughts, suggesting that complete mental disengagement from an external task is not necessary for solitude to have its emotional effects.
What you think about when you’re alone surely has some bearing on the emotional effects of solitude: the researchers investigated this in another study, as well as looking into whether it matters whether you choose the tone of your thoughts or follow someone else’s instructions. Choosing the content of one’s own thoughts, rather than following instructions, was preferable in terms of reducing high arousal negative emotions and boosting low arousal positive ones. However, it’s also true that time alone with positive thoughts – whether by choice or through following instructions – was advantageous, as compared with having neutral thoughts.
Finally, the researchers asked 157 students to keep an evening diary for two weeks to track their emotions. Half the students were instructed to spend 15 minutes in device-free solitude daily during the first week; the other half of the students did this in the second week. Again, the de-activation effect was observed: the week that the students spent time in solitude, they tended to show reduced high arousal positive and negative emotions. There was also an apparent deactivation spill-over into the second week for those who completed the solitude exercises in the first week.
It’s worth clarifying that these findings pertain to relatively brief moments of solitude as distinct from prolonged loneliness, which is known to be associated with a host of unwelcome physical and psychological effects. Also, bear in mind the current findings could vary across cultures and with older volunteers.
Nguyen and her colleagues said more research needs to be done, but that the “take-home message is that there are benefits and detriments of solitude.” They added their studies suggest “that people can use solitude, or other variations on being alone, to regulate their affective states, becoming quiet after excitement, calm after an angry episode, or centred and peaceful when desired.”
The new results may also be seen as a complement to a paper published two years ago that made the case that people generally enjoy going out on their own in public more than they think they will.