Improving Our Relationship to Being Alone
When you think about being alone, what comes to mind?
You might think about the joy of solitude: the freedom, the peaceful quiet, and the comfort of knowing that you don't need to look or act in a certain way to please those around you.
Others may imagine the bitter pain of isolation: the anxiety, the crushing loneliness, and that nagging voice in their heads that tells them they're "missing out" or just not good enough. For people experiencing loneliness, being alone can feel especially painful. Lonely people crave social connection, and spending time alone may only serve to remind them of their isolation, leading to anxiety and sadness.
Whether you enjoy solitude or not, time alone is an inevitable part of daily life. Though people can't always control whether they are alone, they do have control over how they think about being alone. In light of this, our research team wanted to know: Can helping lonely people think more positively about being alone improve their experiences of solitude?
Reframing Time Alone
To explore this question, we invited 224 people experiencing moderate to severe loneliness to our laboratory at Harvard University. We asked them to report their mood before and after spending 10 minutes alone in the lab, without access to any personal electronic devices or other means of distracting themselves.
But first, we introduced a twist: We asked one-third of participants to read a brief passage describing the various benefits of solitude, including self-reflection and reduced stress. We expected this information to challenge participants' prior negative beliefs about solitude and help them reframe it as a beneficial experience. Another third of participants read a different passage about the high prevalence of loneliness in the population. The rest of our participants read a control passage unrelated to being alone.
The results were promising: People who read about the benefits of solitude felt significantly more relaxed and content after spending 10 minutes alone, whereas people who read the control passage did not experience these benefits. In other words, by thinking about solitude as an asset to their well-being, lonely individuals were able to experience their time alone more positively.
We also found that regardless of which passage participants read, spending 10 minutes in solitude reduced intense negative emotions (like anxiety) and intense positive emotions (like excitement). In other words, being alone helped "deactivate" hot emotional states and bring people to a more neutral and calm state.
It's no wonder that people are advised to go on a solo walk when they're angry, and that people often want to be alone in periods of intense grief. Our research suggests that solitude may function as a powerful tool for regulating emotions.
How We Think About Being Alone Matters
When people are feeling lonely, spending time alone is often the last thing they want to do. However, encountering periods of solitude is unavoidable as people go about their daily lives. The good news is that people have great agency to transform their time alone into beneficial solitude. And as our results demonstrate, even unchosen solitude can be enjoyable and relaxing when people think about it in a positive light.
These findings matter because they contradict what society often tells us—that being alone is abnormal or even harmful. Of course, there is no doubt that meaningful social connections are vital to health and well-being. Yet, our research suggests that developing a healthy relationship with oneself in solitude may be an important component of wellness too.
For Further Reading
Rodriguez, M., Pratt, S., Bellet, B. W., & McNally, R. J. (2023). Solitude can be good—If you see it as such: Reappraisal helps lonely people experience solitude more positively. Journal of Personality. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12887
Rodriguez, M., Bellet, B. W., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Reframing time spent alone: Reappraisal buffers the emotional effects of isolation. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 44, 1052-1067. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-020-10128-x
Micaela Rodriguez is a PhD Candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Michigan. Broadly, she studies loneliness, social connection, and emotion regulation, with a particular emphasis on how beliefs shape our subjective experiences.
Sam Pratt is a lab manager in the Deepest Beliefs Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can follow him on Twitter @sampratt99. He also writes for the Substack newsletter Moral Understanding: The Science of What Divides and Unites Us.
Benjamin Bellet is a psychologist on postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, where he treats young adults with serious mental illness. He earned his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University.