Dec. 22, 2023 – For many, ’tis the season for nonstop holiday and family gatherings, lasting from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. While some wish those nonstop parties would continue, others feel an overwhelming desire to just be alone and bask in peace and quiet.
Memes on social media nail the need for “me” time, from “My alone time is for everyone’s safety” to a photo of a woman on her phone, with the caption: “This is me pretending to be on my phone so no one talks to me.” On X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, some users plead for others to respect their need for alone time.
Yet too much alone time may increase the risk of loneliness, already at epidemic levels.
So what’s the ideal balance between solo and not; the sweet spot? Scientists exploring that question say the answers aren’t simple and no perfect prescription applies to everyone. What is known: How you spend that alone time and how you perceive it – great or awful? – seem to impact whether loneliness creeps in.
Being Alone and Loneliness
Time spent alone and loneliness are two different phenomena, and not as closely related as some might think, according to Matthias R. Mehl, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Mehl and his colleagues found a “robust but small” link between loneliness and time spent alone. They analyzed data from 426 people, ages 24 to 90, who wore a smartphone app that recorded social activity in everyday life. The app records, with the people’s permission, the sounds they make for 30 seconds every 12 minutes. The app helped the researchers analyze time spent alone vs. time interacting with others. Each person also completed a validated measure of loneliness.
Overall, the people in the study spent 66% of their time alone. But there was a wide variation on time spent alone, which surprised Alex F. Danvers, PhD, the study’s co-lead author. Some spent 90% of their time alone, some 10%, said Danvers, who did the research while at the University of Arizona as a postdoctoral student. He is now director of treatment outcomes at Sierra Tucson, a residential mental health facility in Tucson, AZ. Older single adults were most likely to spend time alone.
While the relationship is not linear, and varies by age and other things, solitary time does not closely correlate with loneliness until a person spends 75% of their time alone, the researchers found.
But for older adults, loneliness set in when they spent much less time alone than 75%.
“For those 65 and older, there is a clear, a very strong association [between alone time and loneliness],” Mehl said. “For younger adults, and middle age, there isn’t much of an association between aloneness and loneliness.”
According to Mehl, the research confirms the old saying: “You can very much feel lonely in a crowd and fine alone.”
He has some potential explanations for that. Young adults, for instance, may go out to party with anyone who asks, even though they are not close to them, he said. So they may end up feeling lonely when they go out with these acquaintances, perhaps because they have very little history together.
People tend to become more selective in their socialization patterns as they get older, Mehl finds. “They prune out peripheral social contacts and curate a core social network,” he said. So if older people with a smaller circle set up a meeting with someone they really want to see, they are not likely to feel lonely with them, he said.
While there is a relationship between time spent alone and loneliness, “loneliness is really about your perception,” Danvers said. “There is a lot of loneliness that isn’t explained by time [spent] alone.”
While the research is ongoing, Danvers concluded that “as long as you aren’t spending a huge portion of your day alone, even just having a few hours [of interaction] is probably enough if you want to avoid being lonely.”
Solitude and Socializing
There’s no evidence for a one-size-fits-all optimal balance between solitude and social time, according to Thuy-Vy Nguyen, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Durham University, Durham, U.K. She manages a solitude lab and has published on the balance between solitude and socializing.
For one study, Nguyen and her colleagues asked 178 people to complete a 21-day diary study, which quantified solitude time in hours by reconstructing daily events. People in general were lonelier and less satisfied on days in which they spent more hours alone, but the downsides of alone time were reduced or eliminated if the alone time was a choice and did not accumulate across days.
On the plus side, people reported feeling less stress and pressure on days when they spent time alone.
Solitude time can both benefit and harm well-being, Nguyen said in an interview. “Brief solitude can downregulate strong emotions and promote rest and relaxation,” she said. But it can also backfire. For instance, when people are alone and experiencing negative emotions, “I would think they would want to get out of that state,” she said. But they found that some wanted to continue in that state. And that might eventually lead to too much negative thinking and rumination, and increase the odds of loneliness, she said.
She concluded that “the balance is less about the amount of time than about how you spend it.” Activities such as gardening, walking, and reading may inspire people to see time alone as a way to gain rest and relaxation.
When considering whether loneliness is a risk, it’s also important to take into account a person’s “baseline” amount of time typically spent alone, she said. What one person perceives as too much time alone may be the usual amount for others.