"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Being Alone vs. Loneliness: What is a Good Balance?

December 22, 2023 – For many, it’s the time for uninterrupted holidays and family gatherings, lasting from Thanksgiving to New Year's. While some wish for these non-stop parties to proceed, others feel an awesome desire to only be alone and bask in peace and quiet.

Memes on social media express the necessity for “me time,” from “My alone time is for everyone's safety” to a photograph of a lady on her phone with the caption, “That's me pretending to be on.” on my phone, so nobody is talking to me.” On X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, some users are asking others to respect their need for alone time.

But too much time alone can increase the risk of loneliness epidemic proportions.

So what is the ideal balance between solo and non-solo? the sweet spot? Scientists studying the question say the answers aren't simple and no perfect recipe applies to everyone. What is known: How Are you spending this time alone and how do you feel about it – great or terrible? – seem to have an influence on whether loneliness creeps in.

Being alone and lonely

Time spent alone and loneliness are two different phenomena and not as closely related as some might think, according to Matthias R. Mehl, PhD, a professor of psychology at the university Arizona in Tucson.

Mehl and his colleagues found a “robust but small” connection between them Loneliness and time spent alone. They analyzed data from 426 people aged 24 to 90 who wore a smartphone app that recorded everyday social activities. The app, with people's permission, records the sounds they make for 30 seconds every 12 minutes. The app allowed researchers to analyze time spent alone versus time interacting with others. Each person also completed a validated measure of loneliness.

Overall, study participants spent 66% of their time alone. However, there were big differences in time spent alone, which surprised Alex F. Danvers, PhD, the study's co-lead author. Some spent 90% of their time alone, others 10%, said Danvers, who conducted the research during his postdoctoral studies at the University of Arizona. He is now the Director of Treatment Outcomes at Sierra Tucson, an inpatient psychiatric facility in Tucson, AZ. Older single people were the most likely to spend money Time alone.

While the relationship is not linear and varies depending on age and other factors, alone time does not correlate closely with loneliness until a person spends 75% of their time alone, the researchers found.

But for older adults, loneliness begins when they spend significantly less time alone than 75%.

“For those 65 and older, there is a clear, very strong association [between alone time and loneliness]said Mehl. “Among younger adults and middle-aged adults, there is not much of a connection between loneliness and loneliness.”

According to Mehl, the research confirms the old saying: “You can feel very lonely in a crowd and be fine alone.”

He has a few possible explanations for this. Young adults, for example, might go to parties with anyone who asks, even if they aren't close to them, he said. Therefore, they may end up feeling lonely when they date these acquaintances, perhaps because they have very little history in common.

As people get older, they tend to become more selective in their socialization patterns, Mehl finds. “They eliminate peripheral social contacts and create a central social network,” he said. So if older people with a smaller circle arrange a meeting with someone they really want to see, they probably won't feel lonely with them, he said.

While there is a connection between time spent alone and loneliness, “loneliness is de facto about your perception,” Danvers said. “There is a lot of loneliness that cannot be explained by time [spent] alone.”

While the research is still ongoing, Danvers concluded that “as long as you don't spend a large portion of the day alone, even if it's just a few hours.” [of interaction] is probably enough if you want to avoid loneliness.”

Solitude and sociability

According to Thuy-Vy Nguyen, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, there isn’t a evidence of a universal optimal balance between solitude and social time. She runs a loneliness laboratory and has published on the balance between loneliness and Socializing.

For one study, Nguyen and her colleagues asked 178 people to fill out a questionnaire 21 day diary study, who quantified loneliness time in hours by reconstructing day by day events. In general, people were lonelier and fewer satisfied on days once they spent more hours alone, however the disadvantages of alone time were reduced or eliminated when alone time was discretionary and didn’t accumulate across days.

On the positive side, people felt less stress and pressure on days once they hung out alone.

Time of solitude might be each helpful and detrimental to well-being, Nguyen said in an interview. “Short solitude can down-regulate strong emotions and promote calm and relaxation,” she said. But it might probably also backfire. For example, when persons are alone and experiencing negative emotions, “I think they want to get out of that state,” she said. But they found that some desired to proceed on this state. And that would eventually result in an excessive amount of. Negative pondering and rumination would increase the chance of loneliness, she said.

She concluded that “balance is less about the amount of time than how you spend it.” Activities like gardening, walking, and reading can encourage people to see alone time as a possibility to seek out peace and leisure.

When considering whether loneliness poses a risk, it’s also necessary to think about the “baseline” period of time an individual typically spends alone, she said. What one person perceives as an excessive amount of time alone could also be normal for one more.