How does it feel to spend time alone? What happens, psychologically, when you are by yourself? Does it matter where you are? Who you are?

In one of the earliest studies to address such questions, hundreds of undergraduates were asked about their experiences of being alone – either totally alone or alone in the presence of others (for example, when dining solo). They were asked specifically about nine different ways of experiencing time alone that were found to be important in previous research.

Which experiences of time alone did people value most?

When participants rated the importance of each of the nine kinds of solitude experiences (i.e., the amount of effort they would put into having each one; how much each experience had influenced their lives), their rank ordering looked like this:

  1. Time alone can be an opportunity to think through your problems or the decisions you need to make. This was the experience of solitude that participants valued the most.
  2. Time alone can be experienced as inner peace. You feel relaxed and calm and free of the everyday pressures of your life.
  3. Time alone can be good for self-discovery. You understand more about your goals and values, strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Time alone can be used for diversions, such as watching TV, reading, or spending time online.
  5. Time alone can awaken your creativity. You come up with new ideas, or artistic creations, or intellectual insights.
  6. Time alone can offer freedom from concern about what others think (anonymity). You can do what you want.
  7. Time alone can be good for feeling close to other people who are not there with you (intimacy).
  8. Time alone can foster spirituality, including closeness to God or a more secular sense of harmony with the world.
  9. Time alone can be a time when people experience loneliness. Unsurprisingly, the experience of loneliness is valued less than any other way of experiencing solitude.

Where are people when they have these different experiences of solitude?

Participants were asked whether they were at home, in a public place, or in nature during the various experiences of time alone. All of the experiences, except spirituality, occurred more often at home than anywhere else. For example, when people used their time alone for diversions such as reading, surfing the internet, and watching TV, they were at home 95% of the time. When they experienced time alone as a welcome respite from caring about what others think (anonymity), they were at home 83% of the time.

People most often experienced their time alone as spiritual when they were in nature (67%). The experience of solitude as inner peace also occurred often in nature (42%) though not as often as it occurred when people were at home (53%).

The various experiences of solitude rarely occurred in public places. When people were using their time alone for diversions, they were in public places only 4% of the time. (The study was published in 2003, so it is possible that the number would be higher now that people so often have electronic devices available for entertainment when they are out and about.) Interestingly, the way of experiencing time alone that occurred most often in public places was loneliness. When people were alone in public places, they more often felt loneliness than any of the other experiences.

People almost never used their time alone for diversions when they were in nature. (That happened only 1% of the time.) There was one other experience of solitude that almost never occurred when people were out in nature – loneliness.

What are the values and personality characteristics associated with different experiences of solitude?

Five of the experiences of solitude are inner-directed: inner peace, self-discovery, creativity, freedom from constraints, and thinking through your problems. What values and personality characteristics were associated with valuing those inner-directed experiences of solitude?

Participants were asked about the extent to which they valued power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity, and security. The people who said that inner-directed experiences of solitude were especially important to them cared most about two values:

Self-direction: creativity, curiosity, independence, freedom, choosing one’s own goals

Universalism: social justice, open-mindedness, peace, equality, nature, the arts, concern with the environment

With regard to their personality characteristics, people who said that inner-directed experiences were especially important to them had these qualities:

More emotional creativity: when dealing with challenging situations, they are emotionally adaptive and innovative

Less depression

Less likely to be insecurely attached in an anxious way

Some concluding thoughts

There are many positive and enriching ways to experience time alone. Of the nine ways of experiencing time alone, the only wholly negative experience was loneliness. That aversive experience was less commonplace than any other experience, other than spirituality. People were especially unlikely to experience their time alone as lonely when they were in nature.

A very positive profile emerged for the people who especially value inner-directed experiences of solitude (inner peace, self-discovery, creativity, freedom from constraints, and thinking through your problems). They are emotionally creative, unlikely to be depressed, and unlikely to be anxiously attached. They value universalism (e.g., open-mindedness, social justice) and self-direction.

The results are best regarded as suggestive and in need of further study with different kinds of participants. What they suggest, though, is encouraging about what we can get out of the time we spend alone.

Reference: Long, C. R., Seburn, M., Averill, J. R., & More, T. A. (2003). Solitude experiences: Varieties, settings, and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 578-583.

[For other writings on solitude, click here.]

Photo by LeeThatcher