Commonly, it can feel embarrassing and stigmatizing to admit that you are lonely. When we look around us or on social media, it may seem we are the only one without a calendar packed with fun and friends which only further fuels a sense of shame. Ironically though, it seems being lonely is a factor that connects most Americans. A study conducted at the University of California, San Diego found that a full three- fourths (that’s three out of four people!) of Americans are lonely and the groups who are loneliest are in their late 20s, mid 50s and late 80s. Loneliness is becoming such a public health concern that scientists are working to create a pill to manage loneliness or at least the negative health consequences (such as increased risk for cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and metastatic cancer).
Thankfully, if you want to feel less lonely, you needn’t wait for science to intervene as there are already proven ways to feel less lonely available to us! Here are 4 research based (and natural) strategies to reduce loneliness:
Researchers found that with older married adults (age 51+) volunteering for at least two hours a week was able to manage feelings of loneliness effectively even in those who became widowed over the course of the study. Another study commissioned by Oxfam found that 8 in 10 volunteers reported gaining new friends (on average six new friends) and feeling less lonely daily (moving from 3 hours feeling lonely to an hour daily).
2. Get on your phone
A study that was just published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that adults who practiced one 20-minute guided meditation focused on acceptance and awareness daily through a mindfulness app on their phone were 22% less lonely in just two weeks! Furthermore, they were having two more social interactions per day than they were previously.
3. Chat with a stranger
Commuters in Chicago were assigned to three groups in an experiment; one group would behave as they normally would, one group would stay to themselves, and another group were to have a conversation with the person next to them. These groups would then rate how enjoyable the ride was for them; those who engaged in conversation found the ride to be most pleasant and this sense of joy increased the longer the conversation.
Another experiment was conducted which found that most people imagine making small talk with others will be enjoyable but feel anxious at the thought of doing so; in part, due to a belief that others wouldn’t want to talk to them. This is counter though to the results of the first experiment as no one who initiated conversation had been rejected.
Most of us want to talk to each other but are afraid to do so; therefore, to be less lonely, I encourage you to take the lead. While the researchers only looked at commuters, it is likely that friend interactions, in general, will boost our mood. Even if you don’t commute with others, you may find you are a little more cheerful after making small talk with the cashier when you are running errands or chatting with the person next to you at the gym when waiting for your yoga class to start.
4. Get more sleep
Practicing good sleep habits (also known as sleep hygiene) is incredibly supportive of having healthier relationships, having a healthier body and now we are learning, it helps us feel less lonely! Researchers looked at brain scans of sleep-deprived individuals and found that there was an increase in a sense of social repulsion (like the feeling when someone is too much in our personal space) and a decrease in functioning in the areas of our brain that encourage social engagement. Basically, sleep deprivation mimics social anxiety and furthermore, other people perceive sleep deprived individuals as less attractive socially so they avoid them which can create a lonely cycle. Basic sleep hygiene practices include limiting caffeine intake, avoiding electronics at least an hour before bed, and having a regular sleep schedule.
These strategies can be done on their own or collectively especially as some of these are fundamental to good mental health in general and some take little time investment. Here’s to a more connected, joyful life!