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Who Is Spending the Most Time Alone?

... and how some end up spending all day on their own.

Thanks to the annual American Time Use Survey (ATUS), we know quite a lot about how adults in the U.S. spend their time. It is an excellent survey, based on a nationally representative sample. Participants are asked, in great detail, how they spent a 24-hour period of their life, starting the previous day.

Researchers who analyze the ATUS data typically examine the time that people spend on different kinds of activities, but a 2019 Pew report focused instead on something different—the time that people spend alone. Only waking hours were counted, setting aside any time spent on personal activities such as grooming. The data were collected before the pandemic, so they are not skewed by lockdown restrictions or concerns about exposure to COVID.

The findings answer a fundamental question: Who spends the most time alone? They do not, hoewver, address an equally significant question: How do people feel about the time they spend alone? Is it about the right amount, is it too much, or do they wish they had even more time to themselves?

Who, then, spends the most time alone?

Older People Spend More Time Alone Than Younger People

The first answer to the question of who spends the most time alone is that older people spend more time alone than younger people do. Specifically:

  • People under the age of 40 spend about 3.5 hours alone
  • People between 40 and 59 years old spend about 4 hours and 45 minutes alone
  • People 60 and older spend about 7 hours alone

It is not all that meaningful, though, to know how much time people spend alone without knowing anything about their living arrangements. People who live alone have more opportunities to be alone than those who live with others. The particular person or persons you live with matters, too. A spouse, for example, may expect or want more together-time than a roommate who is not also a friend.

People Who Live Alone Spend More Time Alone Than People Who Live with Others

In the Pew report, time spent alone was reported separately for people in different living arrangements, but only for people 60 and older:

  • Living with a spouse: 5 hours, 21 minutes alone
  • Living with person(s) other than a spouse: 7 hours, 46 minutes alone
  • Living alone: 10 hours, 33 minutes alone

As the findings show, people 60 and older who live alone get nearly twice as much time to themselves as those who live with a spouse.

People Who Live Alone Are More Likely to Spend All of Their Waking Hours Alone

Some of the participants in the survey spent all of their waking hours alone during the previous 24-hour period. Who were they?

Again, the Pew report focused on people 60 and older.

  • Living with a spouse: 3 percent spent all their waking hours alone
  • Living with person(s) other than a spouse: 15 percent spent all their waking hours alone
  • Living alone: 37 percent spent all their waking hours alone

Three percent may sound like a very small number of married people who spent all their waking hours alone during the previous day, but they are living with their spouse. What does that mean? Is their spouse away? Are they not speaking to each other? The report doesn’t say.

More Men Than Women Spend All of Their Waking Hours Alone

Finally, among older people (60+) living alone, and among those living with people other than a spouse, more of the men than the women spent all of their waking hours alone during the previous day. (The report did not include gender differences for people living with a spouse.)

Living with person(s) other than a spouse:

  • 21 percent of the men spent all of their waking hours alone
  • 12 percent of the women spent all of their waking hours alone

Living alone:

  • 43 percent of the men spent all of their waking hours alone
  • 34 percent of the women spent all of their waking hours alone

The men, who are more often spending all of their waking hours alone, are less likely to be appreciating that solitude. Previous research has shown that women tend to like living alone more than men do. They enjoy spending time alone more than men do. They also tend to be more satisfied with their friendships, and they spend more time pursuing their interests and hobbies. If they are heterosexuals who were previously married or living with a man, they are especially happy not to be doing more than their fair share of the household chores or the work of caring for others. As always, there are exceptions, and some men flourish when they have a lot of time to themselves.

Is It Worrisome that So Many Older People Are Spending So Much Time Alone?

I think the Pew report focused on people 60 and older out of a concern that they may be socially isolated. But as Gretchen Livingston, the author of the report, acknowledged, “time spent alone is not necessarily associated with adverse effects.”

In fact, contrary to stereotypes, older people may be especially comfortable with solitude. Several months into the pandemic, UK social scientists Netta Weinstein, Thuy-vy Nguyen, and Heather Hansen asked more than 2,000 people to describe their recent experiences of the time they had spent alone. Their participants were teenagers, middle-aged adults, and adults 65 and older. I described their findings in a previous Living Single article:

Perhaps the most stereotype-shattering discoveries were about the experiences of the oldest adults. When alone, they were the most likely to feel at peace. They were less likely than the younger people to express concerns about not having anything to do. Only 2 percent of them complained about feeling cut off from other people. They were about as likely as the middle-aged adults to say that they appreciated the autonomy afforded by solitude (getting to do what they wanted, free of pressures). Emotionally, they seemed to get even more out of their experiences of autonomy than the middle-aged adults or the adolescents did.

Of course, some older adults (and even more younger ones) do experience the time they spend alone as unwelcome and distressing, and their difficulties need to be taken seriously. What we should not do is fall prey to the unthinking assumption that anyone who is spending time alone, including a whole lot of time alone, is necessarily troubled. Some people, such as the Single at Heart (for whom single life is their most authentic and fulfilling life), cherish their solitude.

In an important corrective to the previous preoccupation with people who get more time alone than they want, Robert J. Coplan and his colleagues studied people who got less time alone than they wanted. They found that the people who were longing for more solitude felt more stressed, depressed, and dissatisfied than those whose alone time was closer to what they wanted.

As social scientists pay more attention to the benefits of solitude, instead of just worrying about the perils of loneliness, they are finding that there is much to be gained from alone time.

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