One Small Thing

Here's how 15 minutes of device-free solitude can affect your emotions

When you’re feeling angry, stressed or overexcited, let a little alone time soothe you back to a more peaceful state.

Just 15 minutes of solitude — no phones or other devices, please — can leave you more relaxed, calm and centered, a recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found.

Being alone is different for everyone, so it may be helpful for people to explore and see how it feels to them, said Thuy-vy T. Nguyen, the study co-author and graduate student in the department of clinical and social sciences in psychology at the University of Rochester.

"There seems to be a kind of 'stigma' around being alone, so I hope our findings really demonstrate the lesson that solitude is not a good or bad thing. It's something that occurs daily, and even more frequently as we get older," Nguyen told TODAY.

"Another lesson is that if you are someone with a busy schedule or stressful lifestyle, or if you feel like you are 'on' all the time, perhaps some short periods of solitude now and then throughout the day can be useful."

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It's healthy to be alone sometimes, a new study finds

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It's healthy to be alone sometimes, a new study finds

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Spending time alone “deactivates” people’s emotions, settling them down when they’re frenzied, angry or anxious, four separate experiments showed. This may be why people choose to be alone in general, the researchers note: You can rejuvenate and unwind when you’re by yourself.

"Deactivation can be a good thing, because the norm in our society is that we want excitement and something that makes us energized and vital," Nguyen noted. "But for that excitement and vitality to sustain, there also needs to be time for us to rewind, and that is OK, too. It's like pressing a restart button."

For the study, hundreds of college-age participants tried different states of solitude — with each session always lasting 15 minutes. The researchers chose that duration because it didn't seem too long or too short.

Some people sat alone in a comfortable chair away from their devices without anything to do; others were given something “moderately interesting” to read. Some were told to think about something specific; others could choose what to think about. Some were asked to practice solitude daily for a week — for 15 minutes without any electronic devices or activities — and keep a diary of how it affected them.

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Meet Cassie De Pecol, first woman on record to travel alone to every country in the world

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Meet Cassie De Pecol, first woman on record to travel alone to every country in the world

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In all cases, being alone made people’s emotions less intense afterwards. It lowered the temperature of the bad effects of “high arousal,” including feeling hostile, scared, upset, irritable and jittery. The good effects — like feeling alert, excited and attentive — were tempered, too. But that can be helpful in some situations, like when you want to go to sleep or just need to calm down, the researchers note. Thinking positive thoughts and choosing how to spend your period of solitude can make the experience better, they add.

When people actively chose to be alone, “solitude could lead to relaxation and reduced stress,” the study found. Moreover, people who practiced solitude every day for a week experienced a “spillover effect” of having less intense feelings the next week.

The researchers specifically asked participants not to use devices, but Nguyen said she doesn't know at this point whether the gadgets would negate the positive effect of alone time.

If you want to 'deactivate':

• The study's findings show quiet reading alone would help with that, Nguyen said.

• If you want to deactivate, but also keep the good effects of being stimulated, she would suggest something that's more cognitively engaging, like sitting alone with positive thoughts.

• If you don't want to think positive thoughts, just choose whatever you want to think about and stay with it for a while to see how it feels. Having autonomy over your time alone and deciding for yourself how you want to spend it seems to be the key ingredient, she noted.

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