While loneliness has been the subject of many studies, little is known about the experience of solitude. Solitude is defined by the absence of interaction with others, but is not characterized by a particular type of emotion. A recent study explored the experience of solitude among middle-aged and older adults.
The study included 100 community-dwelling adults age 50-85 who lived in the Vancouver, Canada, area. Researchers sought information from participants using a process called time-sampling, in which they requested up to 30 self-reported assessments over a 10-day period. Tablets were used to collect the assessment data. When their tablet beeped, participants were asked about their activities, location, mood, social context (interacting with someone; not interacting with someone but others are nearby; or alone), and their desire for solitude or social interaction. The researchers defined solitude as the absence of social interaction, though others could be nearby. Speaking with others by phone or online was considered social interaction.
The study found that participants reported that they were in solitude often—averaging about two-thirds of the time they were asked—and that this was usually by choice. Seeking out solitude while participating in passive leisure activity (such as reading or relaxing) was associated with increased levels of low arousal positive affect (feeling calm or satisfied). When experiencing solitude, participants reported reduced high arousal positive affect (such as feeling happy or excited), as well as increased loneliness, as compared to times of social interaction. In addition, participants who wanted more solitude tended to feel less lonely than others.
The researchers also examined differences by age group. Older adults and middle-aged adults had similar desires for solitude and spent similar amounts of time in solitude. In contrast to middle-aged adults, older adults didn’t report a decrease in positive affect when seeking solitude, suggesting that seeking solitude may provide benefits for older adults. Future studies are needed to better understand differences between middle-aged and older adults, as well as how individual characteristics relate to solitude-seeking and solitude’s benefits.
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Lay JC, Pauly T, Graf P, Mahmood A, Hoppmann CA. Choosing solitude: Age differences in situational and affective correlates of solitude-seeking in midlife and older adulthood. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B., (2020); 75(3):483-93.