EMOTIONAL HEALTH
September 18, 2010

Only the Lonely

Feel lonely? A new study finds that the best way to reduce loneliness is to change how you think about yourself and others.

An analysis of 40 years of published studies concludes that the most effective way to reduce loneliness is to change how people see, think and feel about themselves and their fellow human beings. Specifically, they need to see things in a less negative light.

To feel less lonely, people need to change their perspective.

Some people are not very pleased with themselves. They expect others to see them in the same light. This can lead to a sense of apartness and loneliness.

This could mean a number of different perceptual changes. For some, it means being less judgmental about other people. To be human is to be flawed. But when the essence of others seems to lie in their flaws, they may seem depersonalized: more like annoying objects than fellow human beings. This naturally leads to a sense of separation from them, which is felt as loneliness.

For others, it means being less judgmental about themselves. Some people are not very pleased with themselves. They expect others to see them in the same light. This too, can lead to a sense of apartness and loneliness.

These are just two examples of the many types of socially maladaptive thinking. They all tend to form a loop or vicious cycle that feeds upon itself and worsens loneliness as time goes by.

The way to break the cycle is to learn to see the world through a different lens.

The study researchers combed the literature for all relevant studies published between 1970 and 2009. Relevant studies were those that were published in English, specifically about loneliness, original, and measured the effect of a specific treatment on loneliness. They found 50 such studies. Of these, they focused mainly on the 20 studies with the most rigorous design: randomized, controlled trials.

Basically the researchers asked two questions: What worked best at reducing loneliness? And what didn't work so well?

Looking at the 20 controlled trials, one result that stood out was that no difference was found between individualized treatments and group treatments. In other words, bringing lonely people together in groups was not effective at reducing loneliness.

The researchers then divided the treatment strategies that had been used into four types:

  • Improving social skills
  • Increasing social support
  • Creating opportunities for social interaction
  • Addressing social cognition

Of these, treatments that focused on addressing social cognition — the way a person thinks of him- or her-self and others — were by far the most likely to succeed. The four most effective studies all relied on cognitive behavioral therapy or psychological reframing as treatment.

In a talk at Cornell University in 2008 John Cacioppo, an author of this study, likened loneliness to hunger. Both are signals to an organism that they need to address. But the desire to eat is not experienced the same way as the desire to be around others. If hunger had the stigma that loneliness does, Cacioppo pointed out, "[W]e'd have a lot of anorexic people around."

The studies the researchers looked at varied tremendously. They varied in the age of the people studied, size of study, treatment type and length, and how loneliness was measured. But they seem to add up to the idea that combating loneliness effectively requires getting people to reconsider their thoughts and judgments about themselves and others as much, if not more, than it requires them to spend more time interacting with others.

An ahead-of-print version of an article detailing the study was published online by the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review on August 17, 2010.

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