Even before the pandemic, fretting about loneliness had become a national obsession. People feel lonely when they are not getting the amount or the quality of time with other people that they want. Loneliness puts people at risk for compromised physical health and mental health. It is a serious issue, even though claims that loneliness had reached epidemic levels were probably overblown.
The preoccupation with loneliness marginalizes a complementary problem: for some people, what makes them feel stressed and depressed and less satisfied with their lives is not getting enough time alone. During the pandemic, people who are living with other people may be at special risk of suffering from not getting the solitude that they crave. Holiday season can also be a time when some people just don’t get enough time to themselves.
The importance of getting the right amount of time alone was documented in a series of four studies conducted by Carleton University professor Robert J. Coplan and his colleagues. Their report, “Seeking more solitude,” was published in Personality and Individual Differences.
The idea that some people may not be getting as much alone time as they want had not yet been systematically studied, so Coplan and his colleagues needed to create and validate a scale to measure it. Their “Solitude and Aloneness Scale” includes items such as:
- “I would be happier if I could get more time to myself.”
- “I wish I had more time to just be alone with my thoughts.”
- “If it were possible, I would go out by myself more often.”
The researchers call this wish to have more time to oneself “aloneliness.” The word is intended to parallel loneliness, the wish to have more time, or more quality time, with other people.
People who are not getting enough time alone feel more stressed, depressed, and dissatisfied
In the most straightforward tests of whether not getting enough time alone might be a problem, the researchers correlated scores on their scale measuring aloneliness with other measures of negative feelings and dissatisfaction. As they expected, people who felt like they were not getting as much time to themselves as they would like felt more stressed, more depressed, and generally less satisfied with their lives than people who were not craving more solitude.
Because the researchers were simply correlating feelings of aloneliness with other kinds of feelings, they have not established definitively that not getting enough time alone was the cause of feeling stressed, depressed, or dissatisfied. There could be other explanations – for example, that people who are feeling stressed are more likely to wish they had more time to themselves. It is also possible that both kinds of psychological processes occur simultaneously.
What about the studies showing that people who like being alone, or who spend a lot of time alone, are worse off?
People who live alone are often characterized as isolated and lonely. There are even studies that supposedly show that people who live alone are more likely to be lonely. They get a lot of attention. But so far as I know, none of those studies has ever included a critical question: Do the people who live alone want to be living alone? I think the people living alone who wish they were living with others are the ones who are especially likely to feel lonely.
Even without separating those who want to be living alone from those who don’t, the links between living alone and loneliness are not so straightforward. For example, in a study of more than 16,000 adults of all ages, those who lived alone were, on average, lonelier than those who lived with others. But people who live alone differ in all sorts of ways from people who live with others, such as the amount of money they have. When the researchers controlled for those other factors, so that they were comparing members of the two groups who were similar in important ways, then they found something entirely different. The people who lived alone, on the average, were less lonely.
Coplan and his colleagues took a similarly sophisticated approach to the question of whether people who like being alone, or who spend a lot of time alone, experience more negative emotions or more symptoms of depression.
In one study, they found that people who liked being alone tended to experience more negative emotions. That seems to validate all those people who wag their fingers at people who say they like being alone. But the researchers also asked the participants whether they wish they had more time to themselves. It turned out that those feelings of aloneliness are what really mattered. People who were not getting as much time to themselves as they wanted were the ones who were experiencing more negative emotions. Once those feelings of aloneliness were taken into account, liking solitude was no longer a risk factor for feeling badly.
Liking solitude wasn’t the problem. Instead, it was liking solitude, and not getting enough of it.
In another study, the researchers looked at the amount of time that people spent alone. On average, they found that the people who spent more time alone reported more symptoms of depression. Again, that’s the sort of finding that feeds headlines claiming that there is something wrong with people who spend time alone. And in fact, there are people who spend a lot of time alone and probably feel depressed because of it. But they are the ones who don’t want that much time to themselves.
That’s what Coplan and his colleagues found when they looked separately at people who did not want more time to themselves (they got low scores on the aloneliness scale) and people who did want more time to themselves. For the people who were not craving more time to themselves, spending time alone was linked to depression. But for the people who wished they had even more solitude, there was no relationship whatsoever between spending time alone and feeling depressed.
Goldilocks was onto something
People differ a lot in just how much time they want to spend by themselves and how much time they want to spend with other people. Those preferences matter. The results of the studies of loneliness and the studies of aloneliness both tell the same story. We are probably healthiest and happiest when we find the mix of solitude and social engagement that works best for each of us as individuals.
I came to the same conclusion when I studied living arrangements for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. There is no one way of living that works best for everyone. The people who thrive by living alone are not the same people who love living in cohousing, and they, in turn, aren’t always the same people who cherish big, bustling multigenerational households.