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The Gifts of Going Solo

As Social Distancing Becomes the Norm, Expert Shares 5 Tips for Enjoying Alone Time

By Carrie Handwerker

Illustration of person sitting alone near mountains and a body of water

Illustration by iStock

You can get more out of engaging in solo activities than you might think, says Rebecca Ratner, a UMD marketing professor. She offers five tips for making the most of alone time.

Humans are social creatures, so for many, spending so much time alone during the coronavirus pandemic has been unsettling. Rebecca Ratner, a University of Maryland marketing professor who researches how people engage in solo activities, said there's good news: You may get more out of it than you'd think.

Ratner's initial study on the subject, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, showed that people are likely to skip fun pursuits when they don't have anyone to accompany them, out of embarrassment. But she’s also found that when people indulge in activities they enjoy alone, they can have a great time—“an even better time, in fact, than they would have had with someone else." 

Even as lockdown restrictions ease up, COVID-19 remains a threat, so chances are, your social calendar isn’t as full as usual. That's a good thing, at least from Ratner's perspective.  

As we settle into summer, going outdoors to hike, bike or just take a walk by yourself is rejuvenating. In a 2019 research paper, Ratner and coauthors found that you get more out of those kinds of leisure experiences when you are alone, rather than with someone else. They found that people retained more information about the art they saw when they went through a gallery solo. "We find that in many cases, a companion is distracting, making you worry more about whether that other person is having a good time than the experience itself," she said.

Here are other ways she recommends for making the most of your alone time:

Screen it solo. Ratner and her coauthors found that people think they'll have more physical and emotional interactions and get more out of an experience with someone else than they actually do. Like going to a movie, for example. In Ratner's original research, less than 30% of people said they'd see a movie alone in a theater. That thinking likely kept some from seeing this year's Oscar winners on the big screen, but there's no time like the present to stream them. Want to binge all the apocalypse-themed flicks? Go ahead! Or maybe rom-coms are more your speed. "The good thing about watching alone: No need to compromise," Ratner said.

Immerse yourself, virtually. Don’t give up on visiting your favorite destinations. Just do it from your sofa. Washington, D.C.-based bookstore Politics and Prose is webcasting book talks with authors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomes virtual visits. More of an animal enthusiast? Zoos ofter live web cams of polar bears, birds and aquariums. And there's much more.

Treat yourself. Like many people, you may have been reluctant to dine alone at a restaurant before the pandemic, said Ratner. Here's her advice now: Treat yourself to a fine dining experience for one, at home. Take the time to prepare a proper meal, starter salad and all, and even—gasp!—break out your nice dishes and real linens, pour a glass of wine and savor the experience of dining alone. "You are excellent company."

Post your triumphs. Don't be embarrassed about your solo endeavors, and don't shy away from posting about them on social media, said Ratner. One of her studies found that when people see others doing activities alone, they perceive them as having more expertise or interest in those activities. "So if you post a photo to Instagram of the gorgeous loaf of bread you baked, your friends will be more impressed than if you had baked it with other people," she said.

Make an itinerary. For the past months and into the foreseeable future, keeping your social distance means having time at home with no opportunity or pressure to go out and meet up with others. "Use it the way you want, doing the things that make you happy," said Ratner. 

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