The pandemic and lockdowns during these last two years have caused major changes in all of our lives. But not all of the consequences have been negative. According to new research, experiencing solitude has been one of the surprising net sources of wellbeing during this time.
Solitude is often looked down upon as just another word for ‘loneliness’. However, having time for ourselves, by ourselves, is a very important element in our personal development and wellbeing. Although thrust upon us in an unfortunate set of circumstances, experiencing the pandemic and associated lockdowns has, nevertheless, given many people around the world the context they needed to experience solitude.
Although not all descriptions of solitude that made part of this study were positive, they outweighed the ones that were negative, the authors explain. Overall, the findings suggest that people of all ages can recognize solitude as something that can benefit our well-being.
Time for ourselves
“We often stigmatise solitude and confuse it with loneliness. But when we do that, we lose the benefit of understanding and then pursuing the benefits of time we spend alone,” explains Dr. Netta Weinstein, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Reading and lead author of the paper, for ZME Science .
“If we can focus on the positives, we can think about how to try out more of those kinds of experiences and activities that make our time alone peaceful, rewarding, and less lonely.”
The study used data submitted by more than 2000 participants, ranging from teenagers to adults. These participants were recruited as part of three representative samples of the UK population and were selected on the basis of age, gender, and geographic location. The participants included 1,001 adolescents aged 13-16, 523 adults aged 25-51, and 511 older adults aged 59-85.
The study looked at the benefits of solitude in several aspects. For example, one benefit of solitude is that it frees us from concerns regarding “social niceties”. Another would be that it gives us an opportunity to act autonomously, and yet another that it allows us to develop our personalities and abilities.
All in all, adolescents reported little interest in the autonomy aspect of solitude but were excited about the opportunity to increase their competence and grow as individuals. Out of all groups, they also expressed feeling the least disruption caused by solitude. The adults were most invested in the self-growth and competence aspects of solitude and reported focusing on acquiring new or developing existing skills to feel more effective. Unlike the adolescent group, they were very keen to develop and benefit from their autonomy during the lockdowns. Older adults were less interested in the competence aspect of solitude than those in the ‘adults’ group, much less keen on self-growth, but put a high price on the autonomy they experienced due to solitude during this time.
While adolescents overall were the least likely to experience disruptions in their lives caused by solitude, and the most likely to experience feelings of interpersonal connection during this time, adults were the most likely to report disruptions in their well-being during the lockdowns. The paper reports that “working-age adults recorded the most negative experiences” during this time out of all three groups.
However, the authors caution that the data was collected during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, and as such, these results may not be generalizable over the whole pandemic. That being said, they’re still a reliable indicator of the potential benefits of solitude.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are benefits of the pandemic or its lockdowns” Dr. Weinstein explained for ZME Science. “However, what we see is that while lockdowns were understandably difficult for some, others appreciated the opportunity to slow down. They embraced the chance to spend time on simple at-home activities such as baking or crafting, and appreciated getting to know their local green spaces.”
I asked her why adults, in particular, have reported the most negative experiences related to the solitude of the pandemic. Dr. Weinstein believes this comes down to the pressures and stresses the restrictions placed on their day-to-day lives — disruptions in careers, uncertainty regarding the future, and increased responsibilities for children who spent more time at home — coloring their perception of this solitude. Furthermore, this demographic was the most likely to have their usual opportunities for alone-time, a crucial element of well-being, disrupted. For example, they lost those small moments they could take for themselves during their commute or breaks at work, which takes a toll over a longer period of time.
“These stressors may have interrupted their positive solitude time. On the other hand, even working-age adults reported many positive experiences during their time alone,” she adds.
As a last thought, Dr. Weinstein cautions that our experience during the pandemic is not a perfect representation of solitude in general. This particular opportunity for solitude came bundled up with a lot of stress for all of us, a lot of uncertainty, and accompanied by a lot of worrisome news and events. With that in mind, we shouldn’t judge the experience of solitude too harshly based on these past months.
“Solitude is a space where we can pursue our interests, get to know ourselves, and be free of immediate social pressures or demands. It’s much harder to appreciate these things when we are forced into solitude, rather than when we choose it. However, to the extent that we can find value in solitude it can be rejuvenating and rewarding,” Dr Weinstein concluded for ZME Science.
The paper “What Time Alone Offers: Narratives of Solitude From Adolescence to Older Adulthood” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.