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Pure Solitude, Away From Devices, Is Calming: New Research

4 new studies on the positive psychology of spending time alone without devices

Source: junjie/Shutterstock

The psychological experience of being truly alone, with no electronic devices handy and no other people to talk to, can be calming. Thuy-vy T. Nguyen, a Ph.D. student, and Professors Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, all from the University of Rochester, demonstrated the emotional implications of solitude in four studies just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Spending time alone dampened the intensity of the emotions that people experienced, both positive and negative. 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, away from their electronic devices, without engaging in any activities. 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. Nguyen and her 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 had some choice about what to think about would be important. In one of their experiments, some 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 (peacefulness, relaxation, and calm), and they also enjoyed a decrease in the high-intensity negative emotions (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 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 authors 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.

In the everyday-life study, who experienced mostly positive emotions and who experienced sadness and loneliness when they were alone depended on how the participants thought about their reasons for spending time alone. The researchers asked them about that. Some gave answers suggesting that they weren’t that motivated to spend time on their own. For example, they said they spent the time in solitude “because I was told to be by myself,” or “because I would feel bad about myself if I didn’t do it.” Others were more positive, agreeing with items such as “because I find the time I spend by myself to be important and beneficial to me,” or, best of all, “because I simply enjoy the time to be by myself.”

The people who said that they were taking the time to themselves because it was beneficial or because they enjoyed it had the most positive experiences. Their week of solitude made them feel calmer and more peaceful and relaxed, without also making them feel any sadness or loneliness or boredom.

This new research demonstrates with scientific data what people who are single-at-heart have long known in their guts: Being alone is not the same as feeling alone. For people who enjoy solitude, there’s nothing sad, lonely, boring about it. In fact, it can be quite glorious.

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