Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 21, 2019

Are You the Kind of Person Who Thrives on Solitude?

by Jennifer Lay
Asian woman lying and reading a book in the park alone

Despite being social creatures, we spend a lot of time by ourselves—anywhere from 30% of our waking lives as young adults to over 70% of our time in old age. When we think about spending time in solitude—without social contact—a variety of associations might come to mind. On the one hand, unwanted solitude can feel lonely, and we know that prolonged social isolation has been linked with a host of negative health consequences, including heart disease, depression, and death. On the other hand, taking a minute, an hour, a day, or more to oneself can be calming and refreshing. Solitude gives us space for contemplation and creativity, free from social demands and distractions.

This presents a puzzle: How can solitude be both lonely and nourishing, both avoided and sought out? Are certain people better able to reap solitude’s benefits and avoid its risks?

My colleagues and I at the University of British Columbia have been curious about the multifaceted nature of solitude. In a recent study, we asked 100 adults aged fifty and over, as well as 50 university students, to record their thoughts, emotions, and social situations through a tablet app 3 times a day over a 10-day period. We were specifically interested in moments of solitude—times when participants were not interacting with anyone. These moments could happen when alone (as when preparing a home-cooked meal for one) or when in the presence of other people (as when reading a book in a busy café). Participants answered questions such as “how calm are you feeling right now?” and “to what extent were you thinking about new or ‘deep’ ideas just now?”. We used this experience-sampling method to study naturally-occurring solitude as it happens in people’s daily lives.

By looking at patterns in participants’ thoughts and emotions when in solitude, we were able to identify two distinct types of solitude experiences: “negative” and “positive.” The negative type of solitude experiences were marked by unpleasant emotions such as loneliness and by effortful thoughts such as rumination (repetitive negative thinking). This kind of solitude might happen when we are preoccupied by worries or are feeling alone in the world.

The positive type of solitude experiences, on the other hand, happened when a person was having pleasant emotions, such as feeling calm, and was free from negative emotions and effortful thoughts. This is the kind of solitude that might help us relax after a demanding day.

Going into this study, we expected to find another type of solitude experience—a calm and contemplative solitude in which a person is enjoying thinking deeply about life. But our study showed that when people were engaged in effortful thinking during solitude, they tended to experience negative rather than positive emotions. This finding highlights the emotional challenges of solitary contemplation. Thinking through our problems may not feel pleasant in the moment, but effortful contemplation may be conducive to self-growth and pave the way for later calm.

Although any given person could experience both types of solitude in daily life, some people (about 50% of our participants) were more prone to negative solitude experiences, whereas others (about 25%) were more prone to positive solitude experiences. We found that people who were more likely to have negative solitude experiences were those who either were prone to rumination or who enjoyed contemplating their lives in philosophical ways—people with “self-oriented” thinking styles. On the other hand, people who were more likely to have positive solitude experiences tended to have higher confidence in their social skills, which is consistent with research showing that having strong, supportive social relationships helps people thrive when they find themselves alone. Social confidence may remind us that we can reconnect with others at any time.

Each time they described their current situation, we also asked study participants what sort of social situation they would most like to be in: Would they rather be (a) interacting with others, (b) having others nearby but not interacting, or (c) alone. Participants chose options (b) or (c) about two-thirds of the time, revealing how regularly people seek solitude in daily life. Those who wanted to be alone more often were also more likely to experience the positive type of solitude. When we deliberately seek solitude—to relax, to problem-solve, to write, to explore—we take charge of our time and engage with our inner selves.

In moderation, solitude can be liberating and restorative, but too much solitude puts a person at risk of poor health. More research is needed to understand who is and is not likely to thrive in solitude and to figure out how much solitude is too much. Still, solitude, in and of itself, need not feel lonely.

For Further Reading:

Lay, J. C., Pauly, T., Graf, P., Biesanz, J. C., & Hoppmann, C. A. (2019). By myself and liking it? Predictors of distinct types of solitude experiences in daily life. Journal of Personality, 87, 633-647.

Pauly, T., Lay, J. C., Scott, S. B., & Hoppmann, C. A. (2018). Social relationship quality buffers negative affective correlates of everyday solitude in an adult lifespan and an older adult sample. Psychology and Aging, 33(5), 728-738.

Jennifer Lay is a postdoctoral fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research lies at the intersection of health psychology, social psychology, and lifespan development. She is broadly interested in how we make sense of our own physiological and emotional experiences as we navigate our social worlds.


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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