Happy Valentine’s Day? Analyzing How Americans Spent Their Time Alone During the Pandemic

by | Feb 14, 2022 | 2022, Data community, Data-driven cultures

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Valentine’s Day may typically conjure up images of happy couples, heart candies, and candlelit dinners. But after nearly two years in a global pandemic, with many of those couples having spent the majority of that time stuck home together, I started wondering if the best gift for some folks this Valentine’s Day could be some time alone. Read on to see what I learned about how Americans have been spending time on their own.

 

I never imagined that I’d spend my leisure time hanging out fully clothed in an empty bathtub. But when the pandemic hit, the studio apartment my partner and I had shared for years suddenly felt more claustrophobic than cozy, and the bathroom was the only space in our home with a door.

I hadn’t noticed how much I valued having time by myself until my partner — whom I love dearly and enjoy spending time with — was just always there. This sensation of not having a moment alone was echoed by people in crowded households around the world in the early days of the pandemic.

Of course, people who lived alone during those early days of social distancing suffered from the opposite problem. While some reportedly enjoyed the “enforced solitude” of early lockdowns, levels of loneliness — especially in young people — have reached new heights.

 

 

I think we’re alone now

According to researchers, solitude is a bit of a paradox. Get too much, and your mental and physical health can suffer. Get too little, and you’ll experience similar feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability. It apparently all comes down to personal thresholds and choice and whether you have chosen to spend time alone or the choice was made for you.

This has all made me ask: where have people found the time to be either solitary or social during the pandemic? To attempt to answer my question, I turned to the 2019 and 2020 American Time Use Surveys. These annual reports detail the daily activities of thousands of Americans, including which activities were performed alone and which were done in the presence of other people.

I decided to look at the percentage of people who did an activity alone in 2019 compared to the percentage that did that same activity alone in 2020. I hoped this would help me understand where people were finding those extra moments of solitude – or lack thereof.

 

Two lollipop data visualizations showing how the percentage of people doing an activity alone has changed between 2019 and 2020. One chart shows data for people who live alone while the second shows data for people who live with others. Source of data is the American Time Use Survey from 2019 and 2020.

 

Crafting, attending religious services, and working out appear to be great places to carve out some solo time, regardless of your living situation.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to spend some time with other people, you may find more people traveling for household management or recreation together than you have in the past.

The points I personally find most interesting are where a person’s living situation seemed to largely affect whether an activity was done alone or not.

Take running, for instance. Runners who lived alone seem to have taken advantage of the relative safety of the outdoors to run with other people during the pandemic. On the other hand, runners who had roommates started running alone more than they had before, perhaps seeking refuge in the quiet monotony of their feet pounding the pavement.

These days, my partner and I have found a good balance of time spent together and giving each other uninterrupted time to recharge. It seems that even in a pandemic, a little bit of absence makes the heart grow fonder.

 

 

Methods

All data comes from the 2019 and 2020 American Time Use Surveys, sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The files were accessed directly from mirrored .csv versions on data.world (2019and 2020 surveys).

All initial analysis was conducted using the in-browser SQL query engine on data.world and can be viewed and edited here. In my analysis, I combined the following files:

  • atuswho: who was present during each activity
  • atusact: information about how the ATUS respondents spent their diary day
  • atus_activities: a dictionary decoding each activity’s 6 digit identifier code
  • atuscps: information about each household member

I eliminated any activities where the respondents weren’t asked who was present for the activity. This includes activities like sleeping, grooming, and self-care activities. I also eliminated activities that fewer than 100 people participated in. The only activities shown in the graphics had a ±4% change in at least one of the living arrangements.

To focus on change in behavior during the pandemic, I only included diary responses from April – December 2020 (i.e., after the state of emergency was declared in mid-March). Similarly, to directly compare 2019 data, only diary responses from April – December 2019 were included.

Final analysis and graphing was completed using R with minor adjustments to the graphics completed in Figma.

 

 

It’s your turn

This analysis represents just one small way to learn about alone time using the American Time Use Survey. Here are a few other questions that you can ask about this dataset:

  • How does activity alone time vary between people who live with a partner vs. those that also have children in their home?
  • Do alone time activities change based on the region of the US?
  • How does the total number of household residents impact which activities are done alone?

Or ask your own question! Feel free to share your findings with us on data.world; we’d love to see them!

 

 

Looking for more analysis of the ATUS?

The American Time Use Survey is a treasure trove of information about how Americans spend their time. Here are a few other ways that the 2020 data has been analyzed: