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Leave It to Science: Ten Ways to Beat Loneliness

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Researchers call it the ‘The Naked Photo Test’ – the amount of people you would allow to see your most embarrassing nude pictures. This number is equal to your amount of true friends. Twenty years ago, we were able to name three people. Now it’s closer to two. And what’s really depressing: about one in four people have no one they can confide in. Therefore, we present to you … 10 ways to beat loneliness.

1: Eat Comfort Food
It might clog your arteries or cause diabetes, but eating comfort food has an upside too – it makes you feel less lonely. Last year, a psychological experiment was conducted to examine the effect comfort food has on someone’s mood. Participants were first asked to write about a fight they had with someone close to them, in order to make them feel lonely. Others were given a more neutral writing assignment. In part two of the experiment, participants had to either write about eating comfort food or do an assignment on a new food. The results: subjects that had just described a painful memory did in fact feel lonelier afterwards. However, thinking about their favorite food made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. “We have found that comfort foods are foods which are consistently associated with those close to us,” says lead author Jordan Troisi. “Thinking about or consuming these foods later then serves as a reminder of those close others.”

(open access) study

Troisi, J., & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: “Comfort Food” Fulfills the Need to Belong Psychological Science, 22 (6), 747-753 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611407931

2: Stop Lying on Facebook
It’s an ongoing academic debate: do social networks make us feel isolated? Throughout the last decade, several studies warned us about the devastating effects social networks would have on our social life. Misery, estrangement and despair were upon us. Current research, however, is more nuanced ; it points out that certain already socially isolated groups of people, such as the elderly or the physically handicapped, can benefit a great deal from connecting with people online. Still, a recent study shows that social media networks such as Facebook can make us feel lonely and miserable. The reason: our friends’ pictures and status updates, a.k.a. lives, appear to be way better than ours. In a series of five experiments, the study identified several intersecting psychological factors that underlie the grass-is-greener phenomenon – such as our tendency to overestimate someone else’s happiness. So our advice: stop lying on Facebook. Upload all your awkward family photos, change your status to something like “I just ate four bars of chocolate and still feel dead inside” and hope it will catch on.
(open access) study


3: Break out the Photo Album
Whenever we feel lonely or down, we tend to become a little nostalgic– reminiscing about the good old days. According to a study conducted in 2008, this sense of longing serves a psychological purpose. A team of researchers explored the connection between loneliness, social support and nostalgia. Their participants included children, college students and factory workers.
The results showed that the subjects who felt the loneliest claimed, not surprisingly, to have the least amount of social support. What was interesting, however, was that these participants turned out to be the most nostalgic. In addition, when nostalgia was induced in a number of the study participants, they in turn perceived to have the greatest amount of social support. These findings suggest that loneliness can be overcome by reminiscing about the past. In addition, nostalgia increases perceptions of social support. So remember, next time you’re feeling blue: feeling good again might just be one photo album away.
(open access)study

4: Don’t Daydream about Strangers
It sounds a bit odd – daydreaming about strangers – but many people tend to include either fictional characters or total strangers in their (in this case non-sexual) fantasies. Fun as it may be, research shows this kind of daydreaming does not necessarily improve your wellbeing. Psychologists had a group of participants fill out a survey to measure their levels of perceived loneliness and social support. Also, they were administered a questionnaire designed to tap into various aspects of daydreaming. Those who often dreamed about people they could not be close with (such as potential romantic partners, strangers, or fictional characters) experiences greater levels of loneliness than the participants who mostly daydreamed about their loved ones, with whom they felt close. It is important to note that daydreaming about strangers does not necessarily cause loneliness (nor visa versa), but according to this study, the two do go hand in hand. So just to be on the safe side; daydream about friends and family, and leave strangers for your sexual fantasies.
(not open access) study

5: Get Yourself a Career
The popular media tend to depict big shot CEOs as lone wolves who are incapable of having a social life. New research suggests non-managers are just as lonely as managers; they just get paid less. So whoever made up the saying ‘lonely at the top’ has obviously never been there. Research psychologist Sara Wright conducted several studies to examine loneliness at the workplace. “The notion that it is lonely at the top does seem to be paradoxical when studying the literature,” Wright explains. “On the one hand, effective leaders are portrayed as socially and personally well-adjusted individuals (who should, therefore, not be lonely), while lonely people are socially and personally lacking and find their isolation exceedingly painful […]; therefore they are unlikely to make successful leaders.” Her results show that loneliness in the workplace was not connected to job position, but rather to individual and environmental factors. In other words: it could happen to anyone of us – which is why God created water coolers.
(open access) study

6: Stop Smoking
We know – for those of you non-Americans who smoke, this seems like a ridiculous advice for those who are lonesome. Smoking is social. There’s a reason house parties are more fun if you’re out on the balcony. However, a study conducted by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler of UC San Diego suggests smoking can cause people to feel socially isolated. The researchers analyzed smoking behavior from 1971 to 2003 in a large social network of 12,067 densely interconnected people. “In the early 1970s,” said Fowler, “it was completely irrelevant if you smoked. You could be central in your circle and be connected to lots of other people who were similarly central. You could be popular, in other words. By the 2000s, it had become highly relevant: If you smoked, you would, in some sense, be shunned.” Quitting smoking, on the other hand, put people right back in the center of their social circle. “We show,” Fowler explains, “that this not coincidental – there seems to be a causal relationship at work.” Side note: since the study was conducted among Americans only, the findings might not apply to smokers outside of the U.S.
(open access) study

7: Have a Walk in the Park
Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. Studies have shown that green environments affect us in a positive way. Environmental psychologists Frances e. Kuo is interested in how our surroundings relate to our well- being. “In greener settings,” Kuo explains, “we find that people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighborhood social ties and a greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others.” She points out that another study, conducted on more than 10,000 Dutch households, argues that the less green a person’s living environment is, the more likely that person is to report feeling lonely and report not having adequate social support. The study included households from a wide range of living conditions, from rural to heavily urban, and took respondents’ income and other characteristics into account. Because of this strong correlation between nature and health, Kuo encourages city planners to design communities with more public green spaces in mind.
(open access) study

8: Watch TV
Whoever watched the TV-series Friends, knows they weren’t just friends. They were your friends. Does that make you a bit pathetic? Apparently, it does not. A study shows that tuning in to see your favorite characters can provide you with feelings of belonging, even in the face of low self esteem or after being rejected by friends or family members. A team of psychologists at the University at Buffalo and Miami University conducted four studies to examine the effect TV-shows have on our self-esteem and psychological well-being. After watching their favorite show, or after writing about it –depending on the study – participants expressed fewer feelings of loneliness and exclusion. In addition, it boosted their self-esteem. “The research provides evidence for the ‘social surrogacy hypothesis,’ which holds that humans can use technologies, like television, to provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced,” states Shira Gabriel, one of the authors of the study.
(not open access) study

9: Stay Away From Other Lonely People
This might come across as a bit harsh for those who are already lonely, but it’s true: loneliness spreads like a bad cold. Research psychologists from the University of Chicago and the University of California conducted a study to test the theory that an individual’s perceived social isolation (i.e. loneliness) is linked to the number of connections in their social network (i.e. the number of close friends they have). And more specifically; they wanted to know whether a measure of loneliness within social networks could be seen as spreading over time. From 1983 until 2001, a total of 12,067 participants were followed. After carefully observing their social connections and analyzing their questionnaires – which contained the subjects’ perceived level of loneliness – the researchers found that, over time, much of the loneliness seemed to spread to the edge of a network. The study also shows that that as people become lonely, they become less trustful of others. “ A cycle develops that makes it harder for them to form friendships, explains Dr John Cacioppo, lead author of the study.
(not open access) study

10: Get Yourself a Pet
Let us say upfront: the fact that pets might make you feel less lonely is not an excuse to become ‘that crazy cat lady.’ You do not need to own 17 pets to fill the void. Having said that, let’s focus on the research. A recent study was conducted among two test groups; one contained 241 college students, while the other group had 102 participants who were over 30. Both groups had to fill out surveys about reasons for pet ownership (most of them had dogs and/or cats). The most common reasons given by both groups were, “I would be lonely without my pet,” “My pet helps me get through hard times,” “My pet helps keep me active,” “My pet serves a useful function,” and “I keep the pet for other people.” While previous work has demonstrated that the elderly benefit from animal companionship, this study is the one of the first to suggest that animal companions help those younger than 30 years of age. “I wouldn’t advise everyone to go out and buy a puppy. But I think this research clearly shows that many people can benefit both psychologically and socially from living with an animal companion,” says lead author Sara Staats.
(open access) study

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