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Alone Time an Important Part of a Balanced Social Diet

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We all know we’re supposed to eat a balanced diet with a combination of different types of foods. A growing body of research suggests the same is true when it comes to social behavior – that a mixture of different types of social interactions, as well as alone time, leads to the greatest well-being.

While it sounds logical, that hasn’t been the prevailing advice.

“All I had heard for years was this recommendation that we just should be spending more time interacting - both with close friends and family, but also with our weak tie relationships or people that we don't know as much. And I think that misses the picture,” said University of Kansas communications researcher Jeff Hall.

Hall argues that quality and type of interaction is just as important as the amount. In fact, he’s identified four types of interactions that seem to really matter: joking around, catching up, having meaningful conversation, and expressing affection. While those may seem rather different on the surface, Hall says there are key similarities.

“They all tend to be pretty energy-intensive activities,” Hall explained. “They're things that require a lot of focus, a lot of attention to another person, and partner responsiveness.”

They are also relatively rare, and Hall is okay with that. His data suggest that having some of these types of interactions in our day is important, but that more and more of them doesn’t necessarily add up to more and more happiness.

“We need these kind of strong, striving communication episodes to be a part of our recipe of social interaction, but they don't need to constitute the entirety of it,” Hall said.

And Hall says there’s a clear way to know when you’ve reached the point of having enough meaningful social interaction – it’s how you feel when you are alone.

“What happens is when people have one of those striving communication episodes, later in the day, they're more likely to be alone and happy to be that way,” he said.

And being comfortable and content while alone – not lonely or feeling left-out – is one of the strongest predictors of overall life satisfaction and well-being.

Hall also argues that alone time is a necessary part of a balanced social diet, because it allows time to recharge and enable more meaningful social interactions. And, interestingly, Hall says that the benefits of both social interaction and alone time are independent of personality type; both extroverts and introverts need a balanced diet.

All of this translates into some very concrete advice for the onslaught of socializing that comes with the holiday season.

First of all, Hall notes that volition, or choice, is important for having quality social interactions. The fact that so many social activities around the holidays feel mandatory sets them up to potentially be less beneficial.

Hall suggests that allowing visitors, guests – and yourself – to opt for some alone time, even if your time together is limited, could lead to more meaningful interactions. So, take some time to go for a walk or curl up with a book in between parties. It’s good for you!

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.