How Much Alone Time Do You Really Need?

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Good news: Preferring to spend some time solo does not signify you're a total weirdo or even lonely and sad. In fact, being a lone wolf (at least sometimes) can boost productivity and even make romantic relationships stronger. But if we feel lonely when we're alone, that solitude can actually become a health risk. A table for one might be the perfect way to recharge after a hectic week, but it can also be a reason to start singing the blues.

Solo Act — What's Alone Time Anyway?

Photo by Collin Orcutt

Alone time is a pretty difficult concept for some of us to grasp. Between cell phones, email, and social media, Americans are spending more and more time plugged-in. That said, psychologists define “solitude” as the state of being physically alone with no one else to communicate with — not to be confused with loneliness, or the feeling of being disconnected from others and longing for connection. In other words, it’s completely possible to sit alone in an empty room without feeling lonely. At its best, time spent without others around is associated with getting to know oneself, inner peace, and spirituality [1].

Solo time can be especially beneficial at work. Some experts have critiqued brainstorming sessions and open office plans, questioning whether group work is the best way to generate good ideas. Instead, they suggest, people may be more productive when they work in private, or at least when there’s a balance between group work and solo time [2] [3].

But the bonuses of alone time aren't limited to the boardroom. Many relationship experts agree that one or both partners may need some time alone for a romantic relationship to function. And we can scrap that stereotype that men are the only ones who need time alone in their “man caves.” One survey found women in relationships want alone time, girl time, and even separate vacations more now than in years past.

Some people aren’t even up for sharing a bed in the first place. In the USA today, 25 percent of the population lives alone (that’s 32 million people), compared to 10 percent back in 1950. Among people ages 18 to 34, the number of people living alone (five million) has increased ten-fold since 1950. Americans who live alone often say having their own personal space makes them more social outside the home, more productive, and generally happier. But before anyone heads out to Walden, we should mention it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Is One the Loneliest Number? – When Sadness Strikes

There may be truth to the cranky shut-in stereotype. Some research suggests that, among adults, spending time alone is associated with poor social adjustment — though it’s not clear that solo time actually causes the social problems. Loneliness can also result from being alone when we really want to connect with others. (Think the first day of elementary school all over again.) So it’s definitely possible to be surrounded by others (in the real world or across the interwebz) and still feel lonely.

But there's good reason to fight those solo blues. Feeling lonely can have some serious health effects. One study of young adults found that being alone was associated with a spike in cortisol (the stress hormone), but another found that a cortisol spike was specifically associated with feeling lonely [4] [5]. That’s possibly because loneliness is linked to depression and stress, so lonely people generally show high cortisol levels. Other research suggests that in habitually lonely or depressed people, the body may produce cortisol to help prepare for dealing with the demands of social interaction. Lonely folks also tend to have worse sleep habits, higher blood pressure, and weaker immune responses than others — all potential results of those higher cortisol levels [6] [7] [8].

Some recent research suggests loneliness is on the rise, and technology — everything from social networking sites to cell phones — may be to blame. Sometimes people choose Facebook messaging instead of face time, using social networking as a replacement for in-person interaction. Another way to explain the connection between technology and loneliness is that constant access to our social networks makes it easy to define ourselves by connections with others. So we might feel lonely when we don’t have that many Twitter followers, for example.

Unfortunately there's no one-size-fits-all prescription for the amount of alone time we need. But there are ways to make sure that privacy doesn’t turn into loneliness. Some psychologists suggest that we avoid using technology as a substitute for real face-to-face communication, so try catching up with a pal over coffee instead of tweets. And in relationships, it’s all about compromise and respecting each other’s needs. ("Okay, I'll go to your work party, but only if I can be alone for the rest of the evening.”) It’s rarely a good idea to stay in a partnership out of fear of being alone.

In the end, the value of solo time depends on the individual. One person's lame Friday night in may be another's ideal opportunity to turn up the Tiffany.

Do you ever feel like you need a break from the hustle and bustle? How do you avoid feeling lonely during solo time? Tell us in the comments below!

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Works Cited

  1. Solitude experiences: varieties, settings, and individual differences. Long, C.R., Seburn, M., Averill, J.R., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 2003;29(5):578-83.
  2. Cognitive stimulation in brainstorming. Dugosh, K.L., Paulus, P.B., Roland, E.J., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Arlington. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2000;79(5):722-35.
  3. How the group affects the mind: a cognitive model of idea generation in groups. Nijstad, B.A., Stroebe, W. department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2006;10(3):186-213.
  4. Solitude and cortisol: associations with state and trait affect in daily life. Matias, G.P., Nicolson, N.A., Freire, T. School of Psychology, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal. Biological Psychology 2011;86(3):314-319.
  5. Loneliness and cortisol: Momentary, day-to-day, and Trait Associations. Doane, L.D., Adam, E.K. Cells to Society Center, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2010;35(3):430-41.
  6. Loneliness and health: potential mechanisms. Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., Crawford, L.E., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago. Psychosomatic Medicine 2002;64(3):407-17.
  7. Loneliness, social network size, and immune response to influenza vaccination in college freshman. Pressman, S.D., Cohen, S., Miller, G.E., et al. Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA. Health Psychology 2005;24(3):297-306.
  8. Loneliness Predicts Increased Blood Pressure: Five-Year Cross-Lagged Analyses in Middle-Aged and Older Adults. Hawkley, L.C., Thisted, R.A., Masi, C.M., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Psychology and Aging 2010;25(1):132-41.

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