The Upside of All of This Alone Time

COVID Still Has Us Spending a Lot More Time Alone. That's Not All Bad

May 29, 2020
Marketing

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Humans are social creatures, so for many, spending all of this coronavirus pandemic-induced time alone can be unsettling. Rebecca Ratner, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, has spent years researching the act of doing things alone and she says there’s good news: You may get more out of it than you’d think.

Ratner’s initial research on the subject, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, showed that people are likely to skip fun activities when they don’t have anyone to accompany them. Most worry how others will perceive them – ”No one wants to be seen as a loser,” she says. But, according to her findings, 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.”

Through all her research, she says, one thing stands out. “When people do things alone, they enjoy themselves more than they expected,” says Ratner. “People overestimate the benefits of being with someone else.”

Today, lockdown restrictions are easing in various places. But with COVID-19 remaining a threat to personal and public health, chances are, your social calendar doesn’t look quite as busy as it once did.

And that’s a good thing, at least from Ratner’s perspective. Here’s how to make the most of this time:

Explore what you love. Take this time to immerse yourself in activities you enjoy, she says. As we head into summer, heading outdoors to hike, bike or just take a walk by yourself is rejuvenating. For the readers, Washington, D.C.-based bookstore Politics and Prose is webcasting book talks with authors. Love art? ”Stroll” the Metropolitan Museum of Art or check out the Louvre’s Egyptian antiquities collection.

More of an animal enthusiast? Spend hours watching live web cams of polar bears, birds and aquariums from your sofa. And there’s much more.

In Ratner’s recent research paper, she and coauthors find that you get more out of those kinds of leisure experiences when you are alone, rather than with someone else. In their studies, 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 says.

Screen it solo. In one research paper, Ratner and her coauthors find 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 says.

Treat yourself. Like many people, you may have been reluctant to dine alone at a restaurant before the pandemic, says Ratner. So 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, says Ratner. One of her studies finds 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 says.

Make an itinerary. For the past months and into the foreseeable future, keeping your social distance means having this time at home with no opportunity, or pressure, to go out and meet up with others. “Use this time the way you want, doing the things that make you happy,” says Ratner. “Create a to-do list to prioritize activities that bring you joy, things you really want to do during this pandemic stay-at-home time.”

But, she says, don’t shy away from interacting with others because social connections with friends and loved ones remain vital during this time. She says continue to plan ways to interact with others, beyond work activities – FaceTime calls, Zoom happy hours, virtual game nights.

“But also embrace this time. We might never have this kind of alone time again.”

Learn more: In May 2020, Ratner hosted a webinar, titled "Covid and Social Distancing," in which she discussed her research further. For a recording of the webinar, go to https://www.rhsmith.umd.edu/programs/executive-education/smith-lifelong/...

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About the Expert(s)

RatnerRebecca

Rebecca Ratner is the Dean's Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. She received a Ph.D. in social psychology from Princeton University in 1999, was a visiting scholar at the Wharton School in 1996 – 1997 and a visiting scholar at the Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business in 2004. Prior to her position at Maryland, she was assistant professor and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ratner has taught courses on marketing management, marketing research, and consumer behavior to MBA students, undergraduate students, and executives.

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