ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. And I'm Andrew Limbong. The pandemic has got us thinking about being alone. Even as some states start to slowly open up and as people gather in the streets to protest, we still can't quite be with each other like we used to, which means even more alone time. And alone time is tricky. Even researchers who look at this stuff don't have a concrete definition of what it means to be alone.
ROBERT COPLAN: It was pretty jarring to me for something that is so much a part of everybody's everyday existence. There isn't even, like, a really agreed upon definition about what solitude means.
LIMBONG: That's Dr. Robert Coplan. He's a professor of psychology at Carleton College who studies solitude. Sometimes, solitude is a moment of peace and quiet. Other times, it manifests as loneliness.
COPLAN: It's like - it's the Goldilocks hypothesis, right? There's, like - there's some people that have too much, some people that have too little. And you got to find your just the right amount - so that we used to focus primarily on getting too much time alone and how that's a problem but that you also have to look at the other side that could be too little and that that may have negative implications for people, as well.
LIMBONG: NPR's Colin Dwyer talked with some of these researchers and got some tips to help you find that balance. Hey, Colin.
COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: Hey, Andrew.
LIMBONG: So how can people find the right balance of loneliness?
DWYER: Well, first things first, you don't have to put too much pressure on yourself. I think that one thing people enter an experience of solitude with is an expectation that they're going to be Henry David Thoreau or someone like that who emerges with a profound epiphany. You don't have to. It can last just 15 minutes.
In fact, we can refer to some of the studies done by a woman named Thuy-vy Nguyen. She teaches psychology at University of Durham in the U.K. And she's done studies in which she will put people alone in a room for 15 minutes, just 15 minutes. And she will ask them how they're feeling as they go into that experience and how they're feeling as they come out of it. And what she's found is that people report feeling generally better but better in a particular way. She describes it as feelings of arousal or an arousal mood.
So there's a high-arousal mood, which can be both bad or happy. Bad would be angry, and happy would be - I don't know - excitement. And then you also have a low-arousal mood which would - the bad would probably be boredom. But the good would probably be contentment. And what people emerged with at the end of this 15 minutes is a general feeling of that low-arousal mood. And that helped to regulate them overall. I'll let her describe it.
THUY-VY NGUYEN: So high-arousal mood would go down when we spend time alone, whereas low-arousal moods go up, which means that, yes, you can feel calm and relaxed, but you also can also feel lonely, sad and bored.
DWYER: The point being that solitude doesn't have a uniform effect on everyone, but it does help to balance the so-called high arousal moods that we usually get flooded with when we're around other people.
LIMBONG: So when we say, like, take 15 minutes, you just, like, sit in a chair and, like, don't do anything (laughter)?
LIMBONG: Isn't that called taking a nap or something? Like, what are you doing?
DWYER: Yeah, it could be taking a nap. And again, you've touched on another difficult part of this whole process - is what constitutes solitude. And in this sense, one of the big questions is, what activities can you be doing during this? Do you need to be just sitting there staring at a wall? Or can you be reading a book? Or can you be doing any number of things? Can you be scrolling through Instagram. Is that solitude? And again, not every researcher agrees on what solitude is. But generally across the board, what Nguyen has found in her studies is that in all situations, if they're generally alone or they feel alone, people have this same effect. They feel a general balancing of their mood.
This is not always pleasant. One of my very favorite stories that I learned in the course of this I'll actually like Coplan tell. He was the one who referred it to me. It was this study in 2014. I'll let him take it from there.
COPLAN: They had undergraduate students go and sit in a room alone, door closed, no tech. Sit in the chair - nothing. So 15 minutes of sitting completely by yourself. Of course, they all hated it. They thought it was boring. They thought it was terrible. But they hated it so much that the majority of them - so more than half the participants said that they would rather self-administer an electric shock than sit in the room for 15 minutes alone.
DWYER: An electric shock.
DWYER: I just can't get over that. So I think that's also important to keep in mind at the outset when you're beginning to practice solitude yourself or trying to take a step away. If you don't enjoy the experience, let alone come away with that epiphany you were thinking of, don't sweat it. Like, at the outset, it can be a little bit unpleasant. But it's a process of practice and eventually coming to feel yourself a little bit more closely.
LIMBONG: Yeah. But, you know, a lot of people, especially now, sort of don't have that luxury - right? - whether they have, like, kids or they have roommates or, you know, whatever. There's always, like - it always feels like somebody need something from you. You know what I mean?
DWYER: So this is one question that I actually posed to Paul Salmon and Susan Matarese. They're married. He studies psychology. She studies political science? But they both try to cultivate mindfulness in their students at the University of Louisville. And they suggested a couple things, like maybe trying to think about solitude in the same way as high-intensity interval exercise, you know, where it's not a matter of going to the gym for an hour and a half. It's - you crank out a set of high-intensity sit-ups for a little bit. And then you come back an hour later, five minutes at a time, so on and so forth. You can do that with solitude, as well.
Remember, these 15-minute studies that Nguyen and would put her subjects through - even at the end of those 15 minutes, they would feel better. So you don't have to go away and be a hermit for a year. You can just take little spells to be by yourself, to collect yourself, to be alone with your thoughts. And if other people still won't leave you be, there's another idea that they suggested.
DWYER: Explaining what the purpose of this is and maybe even inviting people in their own way to find a way to be quiet and turn inwardly for a while. It's not like you're isolating yourself and setting yourself apart. But you're explaining that what you're doing is something of personal value and an inviting other people to at least acknowledge and accept that and possibly even engage in it themselves.
LIMBONG: So it's sort of like proselytize the gospel of solitude and hope that, like, yeah, the impression gets to the other people.
DWYER: In a kind of paradoxical way, your proselytizing solitude can build a community or a social space in which you both understand each other and kind of feel on the same page when it comes to what you need to regulate your mental faculties.
LIMBONG: Just a bunch of people sitting in a room together (laughter) not speaking.
DWYER: Could be. Or just, like, let's say before dinner, maybe it becomes a practice where you just say, you know what? Before we all gather for dinner at 6:30, we all just take some time alone in separate rooms and just gather ourselves and spend a little time with our own thoughts.
LIMBONG: And, you know, that sounds nice. But what about, you know, worst-case scenario? Like, you know, separate rooms don't exist right if you live in, like, a studio apartment with another person or if you live in, like, a house, and, like, everybody's crammed in there.
DWYER: Yeah. And here's where we come back to what I'm sure you're beginning to see as a theme - is this lack of a hard and fast definition when it comes to solitude. I mean, Salmon and Matarese would argue that you don't have to be alone, in fact, to be able to practice solitude. You can just kind of close your eyes, turn inward for a bit and pay attention to what's going on in your body. One thing that Matarese told me that really resonated with me - she told me this aphorism by the Shaker community from the 18th century. They were referring to work here. But I think that the principle kind of applies across the board.
SUSAN MATARESE: Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as you would if you knew you would die tomorrow.
DWYER: So the point being - obviously, they were speaking about work there. But I think that the point applies do your best to pay attention to the moment that you're in and the activity that you're doing, and maybe - just maybe - you begin to feel alone with it.
LIMBONG: Yeah. But I guess on the opposite end, I mean, if you, let's say, like, live by yourself - right? - and don't have a partner or whatever. You can have too much solitude, right?
DWYER: Yeah. And so there's bad news that this is linked to health conditions like high blood pressure, chronic inflammation and other health conditions. But there is good news because in general, psychologists have focused more on this as an issue than its counterpart. So there are lots of resources online. You can try and seek out groups with similar interests, even maybe just try striking up a conversation or two with a stranger along the way.
There's one study that shows that they encouraged several subjects to just hop on a train and strike up a conversation with strangers. Didn't matter what the conversation was about. Didn't matter who they spoke with. Didn't matter how long they talked. Folks who walked away from that experience, even those who were self-professed introverts, spoke of having more positive or at least a sense of a more balanced mental outlook after that study.
But, obviously, those things - talking to a stranger on a train, seeking out groups - right now might not be all that feasible right now in the middle of a pandemic. So there's also one solution that fits. I think Nguyen puts it best.
NGUYEN: If you don't start taking control of your solitude, it can be very chaotic if you don't have a plan for how you spend your time. And if you have a boss that can tell you what to do, that would be great (laughter). But if you don't have that person to tell you what to do, then now you need to create that for yourself.
DWYER: There's a line that actually strikes the same chord that another researcher, James Averill of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst - he said to me. He said that experiences of solitude, whether positive or negative, depend on the stories that we tell ourselves. And some people are better storytellers than others. But the good thing is that storytelling can come with practice.
LIMBONG: Yeah. So what does he mean by that? Like, what kind of stories should we be telling ourselves?
DWYER: I think it's less about the stories and more about the fact of control over those narratives. You are the person who is constructing your interpretation of the life around you. And instead of giving way to the chaos of one thought after another after another after another, instead, you are the person who is constructing and determining how you feel about a situation. And that can come down to just understanding and appreciating and paying attention to the life that's around you.
LIMBONG: Yeah. Like, I am folding laundry. After these five shirts, I will be done folding laundry. Like, it smells good. Like, that sort of thing.
DWYER: Yeah. It's a matter of agency. It's a matter of being the teller of the story and savoring the time that you have to yourself instead of wallowing in the fact that you're alone. You know, we're in control of how we frame and embrace our solitude.
LIMBONG: Thanks, Colin.
DWYER: Thank you, Andrew.
LIMBONG: So let's sum things up. First thing to keep in mind - solitude can look like many different things. Researchers still haven't settled on a definition for solitude. But many agree if you feel alone, you might as well be. Two, Some researchers think we can miss solitude the same way we miss company when we're lonely. It's all about finding the right balance to help you regulate your feelings. Three, don't expect an epiphany. You don't need some revelation to make solitude worthwhile. Even just a few minutes of time on your own has been linked with psychological benefits. And four, if you need space, ask for it. Simply explaining what you're doing to your partner, family or housemates can help them get on board or even try a little solitude themselves.
For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to address microaggressions and another one I hosted on poetry. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from Rose Donahue (ph).
ROSE DONAHUE: I am staying with my boyfriend and his two kids during this time. And we have had a hard time staying off of our screens. So I have implemented the magical mystery jar, which is filled with little pieces of paper with different activities and suggestions for fun things to do, like go for a walk or build a fort.
LIMBONG: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This episode was produced by Clare Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.
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