The Unexpected Pleasure of Doing Things Alone

People avoid going out by themselves because they think they'll appear antisocial, but it turns out they'll end up having a lot more fun than they expected.

Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Two years ago, a Dutch creative agency opened a concept restaurant in Amsterdam that would be, in the words of its founder, “the perfect place to dine in pleasant solitude.” The restaurant is called Eenmaal—this name has been translated into English as “dinner for one”—and was launched in an attempt to start dissolving the stigma attached to going out alone. Apparently picking up on the same cultural drift, a new fast-casual restaurant in Washington, D.C., has tiered, bench-like seating with individual trays, an arrangement that caters to solo diners.

As antisocial as those ideas may sound, it’s surprising that the world hasn’t seen more of them. Today, more than a quarter of American households are home to just one person—a figure that has tripled since 1970. Also, the median age at which Americans get married has recently reached a record high. Given these demographic shifts, one would think that by now, going out to the movies or to dinner alone wouldn’t be the radical acts they still are.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research gets at why most people are so reluctant to leave home and do fun things on their own. In a series of experiments, the University of Maryland’s Rebecca Ratner and Georgetown’s Rebecca Hamilton demonstrated that when it comes to going to the movies or to dinner, individuals consistently think they won’t enjoy themselves as much if they aren’t going with any of their friends. "People decide to not do things all the time just because they're alone," Ratner told The Washington Post. "But the thing is, they would probably be happier going out and doing something."

Some of Ratner and Hamilton’s experiments had subjects trying to imagine themselves in certain situations—running errands, watching movies at home, going out to dinner—alone or with others, and forecasting how much they’d enjoy doing them. But the experiment that is the most telling compared subjects’ predictions to how the experiences actually played out. The researchers stopped 86 passers-by in a college’s student union—some of them recruited while walking alone, others in a group—and asked them to stroll through a nearby art gallery, but only after they’d predicted how much they’d enjoy it. Comparing those results to surveys after the trip, the researchers found that the solo gallery-goers predicted lower levels of enjoyment, even though they ended up enjoying the experience about as much as those who went with company.

Predicted vs. Actual Enjoyment of Visiting a Gallery, With a Friend and Without
Ratner and Hamilton

The researchers determined that the main reason people didn’t think they’d enjoy themselves is that they were afraid other people would think they didn’t have any friends. (That effect was only present for public activities—watching a movie on the couch wasn’t considered less appealing when done alone, but going to a theater was.)

Another experiment revealed the irrationality at the core of this fear. The researchers found that individuals assume the judgments they receive for being alone are going to be much harsher than those they’d pass on others in the same situation. They thought they’d be seen as unusual, antisocial, and strange for going somewhere without friends, but said they wouldn't attach these labels as strongly to someone they witnessed, say, sitting alone at a movie theater.

Ratner and Hamilton also ran some experiments to see how they might be able to nudge people to go out by themselves. They realized that there wasn’t the same mental block against going to the grocery store alone, and theorized that this was because shopping represented getting something done. Sure enough, subjects who pondered going to a coffee shop on their own thought it sounded more enjoyable when they were told they had reading material and could be productive than when they were going simply to enjoy a drink. Getting people to think of an experience as an accomplishment might make them more likely to do it without a friend's company. The researchers’ other advice to marketers was to try and revise social norms by, for example, designating sections at concerts for music lovers who are there alone, or building communal tables for individual diners at restaurants.

The next step in revising the way solo activities are thought of, though, is about how present people are when they do them: In the absence of fellow diners, many of the customers at Eenmaal, the blog Food Republic reported, ended up staring at their phones anyway. These days, when a phone is never farther than an arm’s length away, "alone" just doesn't mean when it used to.