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Spending time alone is good for us, when it's by choice

Forming and maintaining stable social relationships is considered a fundamental need that is expressed in humans from infancy and has positive effects on well-being across the lifespan. While the benefits of such stable, enduring relationships are well-documented, the effects of everyday social interactions on episodic subjective well-being have not been explored in much detail. A new study led by Bar-Ilan University in Israel has set out to clarify these issues. The researchers found out that the element of choice in our daily social interactions plays a key role in our well-being.

The research consisted of two studies: a controlled experiment which manipulated social context and choice status, and a much more revealing, ten-day experience-sampling study, which involved 155 student participants, and aimed to explore these variables in real-life settings. 

Each participant had to report three times per day for ten consecutive days on their episodic social experiences, providing information such as their social status (whether they were alone or with others), whether they were in that situation by choice or not, and the feelings which they experienced (such as positive or negative emotions, satisfaction, happiness, sense of meaning, or sense of control). Over 4,200 episodic reports were recorded and analyzed by the scientists. 

Participants were together with other people 60 percent of the time, alone 40 percent of the time, and they were in these situations by their own choice in 64 percent of the cases. The researchers discovered that, overall, participants felt greater satisfaction and happiness in the company of others. 

However, the greatest sense of well-being was associated with being in the company of others by choice, rather than forcefully. By contrast, being with others caused the lowest degree of happiness when it was not by choice. The effects of being alone on happiness also varied according to choice status, but to a lesser degree.

Thus, choice – or even just a subjective sense of choice – seems to be a crucial factor in influencing our sense of well-being and control. People will most of the times feel better when they are alone by choice than when they are forced to be in the company of others. However, being with others by choice contributes the most to improving well-being.  

“This study highlights a relatively neglected aspect of research in social psychology, which often applies an experimental approach to the study of social interactions, and consequently non-chosen social settings. The findings inform about the role that chosen social settings play in real-life dynamics, showing that individuals often manage to navigate their social lives by their choice,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Happiness Studies

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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