It’s been hard to view time alone as anything but a negative this year, mostly because we’ve all had to endure so much of it.
Indeed, 2020 has been the loneliest year of our collective lives, with far more nights spent at home than out and about. Within the extreme context of the coronavirus and lockdowns lasting months on end it’s difficult to believe, but some solitary time does offer a few benefits.
Consider the findings of a new study just released by Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Researchers there have found fundamental differences in human thought patterns while in the company of other people versus being alone. Importantly, they say both types of experiences are essential for healthy personal growth and self-evaluation.
When we’re around others, our thoughts tend to focus on the present moment. While alone, however, people usually think about events from their past, ponder their hopes for the future, and engage in general self-reflection. Additionally, socializing often provokes more feelings of anxiety and anger, while time spent alone generally brings about sadness.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but as a whole, this study emphasizes the need for humans to both socialize and find some time for themselves. Too much of either is going to turn into a negative, as we’re all experiencing now due to prolonged periods of pandemic-related isolation.
It certainly makes sense that socializing brings us into the present moment. It’s pretty hard to hold a conversation with a friend over drinks while thinking about childhood memories or tomorrow’s grocery list. In many ways, staying in the present sounds fantastic.
People spend their entire lives engaging in meditation and mindfulness exercises intended to keep the mind focused on the present moment.
At the same time, though, socializing also places a strain on the mind. Social experiences and events are full of opportunities for anxious encounters, awkward moments, and even aggressive or hostile experiences. Suffice to say, a night spent home alone curled up with a good book is inherently more relaxing than Saturday night at the club.
That’s why time alone is important as well; when you’re by yourself you can focus on yourself. Alone time is when our thoughts naturally turn their attention to personal matters without having to account for the stress of social interaction. Activities like reading, movies, video games, or any other type of personal hobby for that matter, all provide a different type of relaxation that socializing can’t by its very nature.
When we’re alone, our minds naturally drift toward past experiences, reflect on how to rectify prior mistakes in the future, and plan for a positive future. Of course, too much time spent ruminating on the past isn’t healthy either. That’s why tons of alone time often leads to sadness. It’s all about finding a balance between alone time and socializing.
“Being alone and being with others are represented in people’s minds as qualitatively different experiences, each contributing to the formation of an integrated self,” says study leader Dr. Liad Uziel, of the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University, in a release. “One needs a combination of constructive alone and social experiences, as each type of social setting contributes much-needed, unique advantages.”
The research team recruited over 1,700 people to take part in this study. Each person was asked to “self-generate” some sentences and statements about their usual experiences/thought patterns while alone and while around others. Participants weren’t given any specific prompts or topics to write about, which ensured their responses were not influenced or compromised at all.
This study certainly isn’t saying this year of lockdowns has been good for everyone, but perhaps there’s a silver lining to be found in all of 2020’s lonely nights. There’s plenty of late nights out and afternoons spent with friends and family awaiting us in the future, but for now, try viewing this lonely time as an opportunity for self-growth and self-evaluation.
The full study can be found here, published in Social Psychology.