Spending 15 minutes alone could help you tone down the intensity of emotions like anger and nervousness, according to a new set of studies published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The downside? It could also exacerbate feelings of loneliness.
Thuy-vy Nguyen, a doctoral student at the University of Rochester, and her team designed four experiments to test how solitude affected emotional states. While the experiments varied slightly, all of them included a group of undergraduates (ranging from 108 to 343 subjects depending on the experiment) spending 15 minutes alone, and one of the experiments had participants do this every day for a week. The participants completed surveys about how they were feeling in the moment, measured by asking them how strongly they were currently feeling different types of emotions.
Across all of the experiments, the researchers found that spending time alone “decreased positive and negative high-arousal affects,” they write in the study. This means a dampening of emotions like excitement and attentiveness as well as distress and fear. But they also found that solitude “tended to increase positive and negative low-arousal affects,” the study authors write, including emotions like feeling calm, peaceful and relaxed or sad, bored and lonely.
Choosing what you think about when you’re alone also has an effect. In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to spend their solitary time thinking about whatever they wanted, or think about what researchers told them to—either something positive or neutral. They found that the people who were able to choose what to think about experienced a greater reduction of high-arousal negative emotions and a boost in low-arousal positive ones, as Christian Jarrett writes in a piece about the findings for the British Psychological Society research digest.
What’s also interesting is how solitude may change people’s emotional responses over time. One experiment had participants spend time alone every day for a week, and researchers continued to monitor them the following week when they were not required to spend that time alone. During the week that the students spent time in solitude, they tended to show “reduced high-arousal positive and negative emotions,” Jarrett writes, adding that this effect spilled into the following week.
The findings suggest that solitude “changes the intensity of our inner experience, both positive and negative: accentuating low-key emotions, while dialing down our stronger feelings,” Jarrett writes.
If solitude is a knob to turn down the intensity of your emotions, both good and bad, then it seems like a practice worth considering. Plus, if it’s making you feel bored, that’s okay: in our fast paced, 24-7 news cycle, hyper-connected world, we often conflate boredom with stagnation or laziness. But it’s actually an important aspect of being able to slow down and just be.
“People can use solitude, or other variations on being alone, to regulate their affective states,” the study authors write, “becoming quiet after excitement, calm after an angry episode, or centered and peaceful when desired.”
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