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Developmental, Emotion, Health and wellbeing

Periods of solitude help older adults recharge after socialising

While plenty of past work has highlighted how social interaction improves older adults' well-being, diary study shows that periods of time alone are also important.

25 October 2022

By Emma Young

We know that loneliness is dangerous to our physical and mental health. Older people who are lonely are at a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, as well as dementia. For all these reasons, efforts are being made to find ways to improve older people's social lives, to help them to meet their fundamental human need to belong.

However, recent work also shows that it's not a simple case of the more social contact, the better. Periods of solitude bring benefits, too. One of these benefits is that they allow us to 'recharge'. According to a popular model, our needs for social time and solitude move in opposite directions, like the two ends of a seesaw, and we regulate what we do accordingly. Lunch with a friend, say, is good for our wellbeing, because it meets our need to belong, but it depletes our energy; after lunch, we might then feel a need for some time alone — and this might be especially true for older people, with more limited energy. As that solitude restores our energy, we then feel a growing desire to be sociable again.

Minxia Luo at the University of Zurich and colleagues investigated how that theoretical cycle might actually unfold in the daily lives of older adults. In their paper in the British Journal of Psychology, they report their study of 118 people aged over 65 who lived in German-speaking regions of Switzerland.

Over a three-week period, the participants used an app to log the duration of any instances of spoken social interaction (whether face to face, over the phone or by video chat) that lasted longer than five minutes and also any text-based conversations (via text message, email, etc). When one particular event involved interrupted conversation (such as talking occasionally while watching a 2 hour movie with a partner or friend) the total event time was logged. All other time was deemed to have been spent in solitude. This included sleep time (whether the participant slept alongside a partner or not).

All the participants also completed surveys of trait positive and negative affect (recording how generally upset or inspired they felt, for example), their life satisfaction, and also their general energy levels.

The team found that, on average, an episode of social interaction lasted 39 minutes and a bout of solitude lasted about five hours. But they also found that the length of time that a participant spent engaged in one or the other influenced what happened next.

When a bout of solitude was an hour longer than usual, the participants subsequently engaged in a social interaction that was a little longer than usual, too (though this was slight: 0.6 minutes longer, on average). When a social interaction was one hour longer than usual, they subsequently spent longer in solitude (16.8 minutes longer). These findings support the idea that older people regulate the time they spend in solitude or in interacting with others according to shifts in the levels of their need to belong and their need to conserve energy.

When the researchers compared participants with each other, they found that those who were more satisfied with their life and those who had more day-to-day energy spent even more time in a social interaction after a longer than usual period of solitude.

The team also found that people with lower scores on the positive mood items and who reported less life satisfaction tended to spend more time overall in solitude. "These findings are in line with previous evidence that trait wellbeing is associated with more time in social interactions," they write.

There are some limitations to the study. In their analysis, the researchers did take into account several factors that might have influenced the results (including marital status and health conditions). But they didn't consider solitude type (was a period of solitude a choice — or enforced by having no one to meet up with, for example?) or personality traits that would be likely to have an influence, especially extraversion.

As the researchers also note, solitude won't have the same impact on everybody. For example, someone with depressive symptoms may find that they experience more negative thoughts while alone than with others, so a period of solitude could have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing, while for someone else, it may be only beneficial.

The work certainly does suggest, though, that while older adults should bear in mind all the research on the benefits of social interactions, periods of time alone (or at least not interacting with another person) are important, too. "Our findings suggest that whereas social interaction is a means to improve wellbeing, solitude is also an integral part in older adult's daily life supporting energy recovery," the team concludes.