One of the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic has been enforced social distancing. With the continuation of the pandemic, difficulties associated with distancing and isolation have attracted increasing attention, because they added to the stress stemming from the health concerns.

A central explanation for the negative effects of social distancing is that it deprives us of a basic human need. It is well established that stable social relationships are crucial for human development and are a major source of well-being.

Do Transitory Interactions Increase Happiness The Same Way Stable Relationships Do?

Stable relationships are important for general well-being, but do daily social interactions carry the same positive impact on momentary feelings of happiness? Somewhat surprisingly, past research is not clear on this. Several studies indicated that daily social interactions contribute to momentary happiness, even when these interactions involve strangers. However, some studies found negative (or no) effects for daily interactions, even for interactions involving loved ones (such as caring for one’s child). Thus, it seems the effects of daily social interactions on well-being are more intricate than those associated with stable relationships and are not well explained.

Does Time Alone Increase Happiness?

Not only can we not completely account for the differences in happiness while being with others, we also do not know enough about the experience of being alone. Time spent alone varies by myriad factors including age, familial status, and occupational status. Among adults, time alone occupies 35%-65% of the waking hours. For a long time aloneness (not to be confused with loneliness, which is a feeling of thwarted social needs) attracted much less research attention than did social interactions, but recent studies on aloneness still find both negative and positive effects on momentary well-being. When alone, people sometimes report negative feelings such as sadness and sometimes positive feelings such as relaxation, with no clear explanation on what tells them apart.  

New Finding On What Affects Happiness With Others And Alone

In a recent study, we addressed the inconsistencies in the effects of social interactions and aloneness on momentary well-being. We did so by suggesting that a person’s choice of being in each context is a central factor in shaping these experiences. We suggested that momentary well-being will increase for people if they are in each of these contexts by their own choice. Importantly, we expected choice to matter more in the ‘with others’ context because activities with others are often experienced as more intense.

We tested these ideas in a 10-day study where people reported on their experiences in their real lives. Participants reported to us 3 times a day whether they were alone or with others and also their feelings of momentary happiness, yielding over 4200 momentary reports. In 36% of these, people were in a non-chosen context, meaning we could compare choice to non-choice.

Choice Makes the Difference

The answer was clear: Being with others by choice had the strongest positive effect on momentary happiness, sense of meaning, and control, whereas being with others not by one’s choice had the strongest negative effect. Being alone also varied by choice or non-choice, but to a lesser extent (that is, in-between our experiences with others), implying that our alone experiences are less volatile.  

Now we know that choice systematically affects both our social and solitary experiences. Focusing on choice explains why sometimes we are not happy even when spending time with our family, and why initiating a talk with strangers may carry surprising positive effects.

Therefore, to increase our momentary happiness, we should strive to secure self-initiated experiences—especially social ones. If that is difficult to accomplish, a person could try to modify the situation or their way of thinking about it to enhance the sense of choice.

In the context of social distancing in the era of COVID-19, one may find comfort in that a non-chosen alone setting is not the worst experience (compared with non-chosen social interactions). Our alone time, even if not chosen, appears to produce a relatively stable, predictable, and generally desirable experience. And yet, to enjoy a boost in happiness, chosen social interactions are the path to follow.

For Further Reading

Uziel, L. (2021). The language of being alone and being with others. Social Psychology, 52(1), 13-22.

Uziel, L., & Schmidt-Barad, T. (2022). Choice matters more with others: Choosing to be with other people is more consequential to well-being than choosing to be alone. Journal of Happiness Studies.

Uziel, L., Seemann, M., & Schmidt-Barad, T. (2020). From being alone to being the only one: Neuroticism is associated with an egocentric shift in an alone context. Journal of Personality, 88(2), 339-355.

Liad Uziel is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychology, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, where he heads the Individual Differences in Social Behavior Laboratory.