Story at a glance

  • A new study looks at both social interaction and time alone as indicators of good mental health.
  • The study found time spent alone, but not lonely, is a strong indicator of global well being.
  • At the same time, small talk is also an important part of daily routines.

Introverts can get a bad rap. But a new study seems to validate those who are happier being in bed alone on a Friday night than out with friends.

“Social interactions are taxing, caring for people takes energy, listening to people takes energy,” said Jeffrey Hall, a co-author of the study, which tracked hundreds of days of communications for nearly 400 people. 

Sometimes, you just need a break. People with healthy social biomes, or patterns of social behavior, are comfortable being alone, the study found. At least, that’s if you're doing it right. 

There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, and it plays a major role in determining your overall well-being. The study tracked whether or not people wanted to be alone and found those who reported feeling lonely when they were by themselves were generally less satisfied with their life. 

“People who are saying that they don’t want to be alone are really saying I don’t have the amount of companionship and social connection I need,” Hall said. 

So if you’re someone who doesn’t like to be alone, you might want to look at whether the social interactions you’re filling your days with are fulfilling enough. The study also weighed social interactions by how much you put into them versus how much you get out of them. Expressing affection and joking around ranked high on that scale, but so did a surprisingly important social interaction: small talk. 

Small talk is by definition inconsequential, but the study found that those mundane conversations help build connections while requiring relatively little effort. One caveat, however, is that there needs to be an element of autonomy. People needed to feel like they had a choice in who they were interacting with to feel rewarded by the connection. 

“When people think about why they don’t like small talk, it’s often because they don’t like the person they are having small talk with,” Hall said. 

So when you’re stuck in line for the coffee machine with a coworker or attending a party out of a sense of obligation, small talk can feel like pulling teeth. Still, it’s important to have it, Hall says, the same way it’s important to eat your vegetables. In the dinner plate of your social life, being alone is like protein and deep, meaningful conversations are like grains. You need a little bit of all of them. 

“We need to prioritize having deep, meaningful conversation being part of our lives, but not every conversation that we have,” Hall said. 

Published on Feb 24, 2020