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Solitude: Alone but Resilient

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SOAR (Solitude: Alone but Resilient)

Reporting period: 2021-12-01 to 2023-05-31

Although humans are social creatures, solitude, the state of being by oneself and not in direct social contact with others who are present in person or virtually, is a prevalent aspect of our everyday lives. An average adult spends almost one-third of their waking time in solitude. Insufficient empirical attention has been given to this topic given extensive literatures describe ways that social interactions can be experienced as positive or negative. The goal of this research program was to reframe the understanding of solitude, shifting the focus of theory and research which has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries grounded in psychological costs (loneliness, anxiety) to contemporary perspective grounded in the psychological study of resilience, or transcending those costs and flourishing.

This is important for several reasons. First, since solitude is an inevitable part of our daily lives, identifying ways to shift the complicated and often stigmatized relationship people have with it frees individuals up to enjoy and benefit from their time alone. Since solitude in its most difficult forms has been linked with loneliness and depression, the shift from negative to neutral experiences has implications for improved global mental and physical health for adults and older adults. Furthermore, to the extent that solitude can be transformed from a neutral to positive state, it has the potential for promoting positive self-reflection, creativity, and autonomy.

The overall objective of the SOAR project was differentiated into four related aims, designed to be tested across three work packages. Aim 1 was to explore the meaning of solitude and resilience within it. Aim 2 to was to identify drivers at different levels of analysis including situational, individual difference, cultural, and geographical that promote resilience. Aim 3 was to develop a conceptual model based on data from diverse samples that vary in terms of socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic backgrounds, using varied and complementing research methodologies. Finally Aim 4 was to evaluate causal pathways which support for the conceptual model.
The work started at a challenging time for solitude, together with the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Our focus was on understanding solitude recognizing the context of, but providing insights beyond, pandemic restrictions. To achieve this, we pursued the agenda planned in WP1, and expanded on its overall aims in response to evolving pandemic-specific insights.

WP1 was designed to provide a foundational understanding of the meaning of solitude and resilience within it. To pursue the aim we undertook planned qualitative in-depth interviews exploring these questions. We spoke with individuals living in extended solitude, across most adult ages, from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (participants were from 20 country-of-origins), and who were balanced across genders. From these interviews we have built models of resilience predictors that participants identified helped them to flourish in solitude, and identified four types of solitude that differ on dimensions of psychological and physical distance from others. We elicited photographs from our participants illustrating their solitude, following the plan for WP1.
Alongside WP1 activities, the project team conducted a short-term longitudinal study of solitude of over 800 adults and older adults in the U.K. and U.S. over the first months of the pandemic. This was an intriguing period of time, when individuals spent more time in solitude than before, and discovered it has challenges and benefits. The work utilized a multi-step peer review open science registered format within the Royal Society Open Science.

As well, the team conducted a large-scale narrative study of over 2000 adolescents, adults, and older adults and used a mixed-methods approach wherein narratives were coded for spontaneously elicit themes and correlated quantitatively with self-reported loneliness, relaxation, and motivation for solitude. This paper identified key features of solitude that enriched the state, and explored differences across developmental groups. Older adults, on the whole, benefited from their solitude more and reported more of a sense of self-connection and self-reliance within it.

The team also focused on the role of connective technologies that could be tested within solitude, and through daily diary research did not identify evidence of psychopathology or systematic bias in extensive technology use (paper published in Technology, Mind, & Behavior). We also explored ways to encourage living-alone adults to self-isolate, contributing to our understanding of how to communicate health policy needs to individuals when it comes at a cost to social connection (paper published in Health Communication). From the work conducted, two chapters were written exploring the nature, antecedents, and outcomes of positive solitude in key solitude and motivational handbooks.

Finally, we are undertaking two major naturalistic studies of everyday solitude. In a first study, we are collecting data in line with WP2 goals to model predictors of solitude we have found to stand out in WP1 investigations: stimulation and self-connection. In doing so we account for individual differences and culture. In a second investigation, we are compiling daily diary existing datasets in the field to integrate societal, personality, and situational predictors of affect. These projects complement one another, providing an in-depth examination of key predictors along with a data-driven exploration of complex models.
In WP1, we have systematically explored integrated definitions in a field that considers them separately in siloed literatures. We have put forth a model to guide researchers in carefully selecting and recognizing how they are operationalizing solitude. We have also provided a first integrative list of developmental, personality, and mindset factors that could help people to flourish when alone. These predictors were surprisingly consistent across our diverse sample of individuals from countries across the world. The same personality and mindset factors also seemed to apply across age ranges, suggesting that models of resilience can be formed that apply to both adults and older adults alike.

The project has also pursued a new level of transparency and reproducibility in solitude work, using rigorous pre-registrations and open materials, code and data to explore questions concerned with connective technology-use assessments, how to communicate health needs for living-alone adults, and the roles of motivation and preference in solitude and its outcomes. Some findings were surprising, for example, we found no evidence that initial motivation for solitude protected adults during the early months of the pandemic. Other, unplanned findings took us beyond the state of the art: for example, unexpectedly, mental health problems did not increase in the early months of individuals spending time alone, a finding that was ultimately replicated in other labs but countered the popular scare-tactic narrative of the time. Lasting solitude may undermine mental health, but there was no evidence that solitude in moderation did so.

In the second half of the project and the remaining work of WP2 and 3, we anticipate extensive progress beyond the state of the art, expecting to build an ambitious model to test resilience factors at multiple levels (sociocultural, personality, context, and mindset) based on these initial insights which will be tested with a rigorous two-pronged experience and evidence sampling study of solitude along with a meta-analysis of the existing data measuring affect in solitude. This will be replicated in a cross-country study to examine cultural similarities and differences within solitude. Together, these efforts will provide a unified model of resilience and identify the most important resilience predictors of all. Finally, those resilience predictors that were most important will be used as the basis for experimental work enhancing resilience for older adults spending time alone, offering new ways to promote positive experiences in solitude.