READING, United Kingdom — Quarantines, lockdowns, and stay-at-home orders kept millions of people in a state of constant isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. Numerous studies have found that this has had a tremendous impact on the mental and even physical health of people worldwide — especially children and the elderly. Now, however, one study is saying the exact opposite. Researchers from the University of Reading claim that all the “solitude” people enjoyed during COVID actually improved the well-being among people of all ages.
In a study of 2,000 teens and adults, study authors found that participants experienced “benefits” from staying indoors during the early months of the COVID pandemic. Although respondents noted both positive and negative aspects of being alone during COVID, researchers say they recorded more positive aspects than bad ones.
Among the negative aspects of isolation, respondents say they experienced a worsening mood — a common side-effect discovered by several previous studies. However, researchers say participants also saw positive boosts in terms of competence and feeling more autonomous.
In fact, 43 percent of all participants believe their solitude allowed them to spend more time working on skill-building activities — increasing their competence. As for autonomy — or a person’s reliance on their own abilities — adults were twice as likely to experience a boost in this area in comparison to teens.
Working adults had a worse time in pandemic isolation?
Previous studies have also documented many detriments of COVID quarantine among children and senior citizens. Specifically, older adults have been found to suffer from declining mental health due to the increasing levels of social isolation. They are also more at risk for suffering life-threatening injuries while on their own. In children, parents have expressed their belief that their kids are now two full grades behind where they should be because of the switch to remote learning.
Despite all that, the new study finds working adults say they’ve had the toughest time during quarantine. More than one in three working-age adults (35.6%) say pandemic isolation negatively disrupted their well-being. That’s noticeably higher than the 29.4 percent of adolescents and 23.7 percent of older adults. Nearly half of working adults also reported having a worse mood (44%) in comparison to teens (27.8%) and seniors (24.5%).
Study authors did find that adolescents were twice as likely to say all the solitude impacted their interactions with friends (14.8%) in comparison to working-age adults (7%) and older adults (2.3%).
“Our paper shows that aspects of solitude, a positive way of describing being alone, is recognized across all ages as providing benefits for our well-being,” says lead author Dr. Netta Weinstein, an associate professor of psychology, in a university release.
“The conventional wisdom is that adolescents on the whole found that the pandemic was a negative experience, but we see in our study how components of solitude can be positive. Over those first few months of the pandemic here in the UK, we see that working adults were actually the most likely to mention aspects of worsening well-being and mood, but even those are not as commonly mentioned as more positive experiences of solitude.”
Making the most of our time alone
Researchers conducted their study after the first national lockdown in the United Kingdom. During that time, the team claims many people picked up old hobbies and interests which improved their well-being. This includes going on more nature walks and taking more bike rides.
“Those elements of what we describe as ‘self-determined motivation’, where we choose to spend time alone for ourselves are seemingly a critical aspect of positive well-being,” Dr. Weinstein adds.
“Seeing working age adults experience disrupted well-being and negative mood may in fact be related to the pandemic reducing our ability to find peaceful solitude. As we all adjusted to a ‘new normal’, many working adults found that usual moments of being alone, whether on their commute or during a work break where disrupted. Even for the most ardent of extroverts, these small windows of peace shows the important role of time alone for our mental health,” Weinstein continues.
“It also suggests that certain experiences of solitude are learned or valued increasingly with age, having an effect to reduce the impact of negative elements of loneliness and generally boosting well-being. Equally, it suggests that casual inferences about loneliness based on age and stage miss the reality of our nuanced lived experiences.”
The findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.