The positive psychology of spending time alone, away from devices: 4 new studies
The psychological experience of being truly alone, with no electronic devices present and no other persons to talk to, can be calming. Professor Thuy-vy T. Nguyen of the University of Rochester, and co-authors Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, demonstrated the emotional implications of solitude in four studies just published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Spending time alone dampened the intensity of the emotions, both positive and negative, that people experienced. Alone time also increased feelings of peacefulness, calm, and relaxation. Under some conditions and for some people, alone time also increased feelings of sadness, boredom, and loneliness.
In the pure solitude condition in three laboratory experiments, participants sat alone for 15 minutes in a comfortable chair, without engaging in any activities, and away from their electronic devices. They described their emotions on rating scales at the beginning of the experiment and again at the end.
Participants were asked about their positive emotions that were relatively intense or arousing (e.g., feeling excited, enthusiastic, energized) as well as their negative emotions that were relatively intense (e.g., feeling anxious, angry, jittery). They also reported on their relatively less intense positive emotions (e.g., feelings of peacefulness, calm, and relaxation) and their relatively less intense negative emotions (e.g., feelings of sadness, boredom, and loneliness).
Typically, across the four studies, the participants who experienced 15 minutes of pure solitude felt the intense emotions (both positive and negative) less intensely. In that sense, solitude was calming. People felt less excited, energized, anxious, and angry after sitting alone with no devices than they had before. They also felt calmer, more relaxed, and more peaceful. Sometimes, some people felt sadder, lonelier, or more bored.
One of the studies compared people in the pure solitude condition to people who instead spent their 15 minutes having a getting-acquainted conversation with a research assistant. Only the experience of pure solitude was calming.
In another study, participants in a pure solitude condition were compared to others who spent their 15 minutes alone in the same comfortable chair, but reading a moderately interesting article. Reading did not ruin the positive psychology of solitude. The participants who sat by themselves without reading, and those who sat and read quietly, experienced the same decrease in the intensity of their emotions, and the same increase in calmness. Both groups also experienced some increase in the low-intensity negative emotions such as sadness and loneliness.
Lovers of solitude know that the experience can be an entirely positive one, with little or no feelings of sadness or loneliness or boredom. Professor Nguyen and his colleagues wanted to learn about those purely positive experiences of solitude, unsullied by negative feelings of sadness and loneliness. They predicted that the kinds of thoughts people entertained while they were alone, and having some choice about what to think about, would be important. In one of their experiments, some of the participants were given a choice about whether to think about positive topics or neutral ones, and others were instructed to think about either positive thoughts or neutral ones.
Having a choice helped, and so did positive thinking. Participants who got to choose what to think about, and participants who thought about positive things (whether by choice or because of instructions) did not experience any increase in the low-intensity negative emotions such as sadness, loneliness, or boredom. They still got to experience the increase in low-intensity positive emotions (such as peacefulness, relaxation, and calm) and they also enjoyed the decrease in the high-intensity negative emotions (such as anger and anxiety). Something else happened, too, that some might consider a good outcome: They did not experience any decrease in their intense positive emotions (such as excitement or enthusiasm).
In short, the people who sat alone by themselves for 15 minutes with no electronic devices, and who got to choose what to think about, or who thought about positive things (by choice or by assignment) had very positive experiences of solitude. They felt calmer and less angry or anxious, without also feeling any sadder or lonelier, and without losing any of their feelings of excitement or enthusiasm.
In the last study, the professors studied the experience of solitude in the participants’ everyday lives. (The participants in all the studies were college students.) Participants reported on their emotional experiences every day for two weeks. During only one of the two weeks, the participants spent 15 minutes each day in pure solitude, away from their electronic devices. (Half of the participants had their solitude days during the first week, and the other half, the second.)
Participants experienced less intense emotions (both positive and negative) during their week of solitude sessions than during the other week. They felt less angry and anxious, as well as less excited and enthusiastic. For the participants whose alone-time occurred in the first week, the calming effects seemed to extend a bit into the second week.