The most effective way to overcome loneliness is changing how lonely people think about social situations, many studies find.
It is more effective than improving social skills, being around more people or even having more social support.
The reason is that lonely people tend to expect social situations to go badly.
Lonely people expect to feel bad when socialising and believe they depress others.
This expectation transmits itself to others, who become more wary of an embarrassing or uncomfortable encounter — and so loneliness perpetuates itself.
The results come from a review of 50 separate studies of loneliness conducted over several decades, including thousands of people around the world.
The study’s authors explain how lonely people experience social situations:
“…lonely individuals have increased sensitivity to and surveillance for social threats, preferentially attend to negative social information, remember more of the negative aspects of social events, hold more negative social expectations, and are more likely to behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations.
This loop has short-term self-protective features but over the long term heightens cognitive load, diminishes executive functioning, and adversely influences physical and mental health and well-being.”
Loneliness is contagious, the authors write, because:
“…lonely individuals not only communicate negativity to others but also elicit it from others and transmit it through others.
This perpetuates a cycle of negative interactions and affect in the lonely individual and also transmits negativity to others to affect their interactions as well.”
While it seems obvious that bringing lonely people together will make them less lonely, this is not that effective:
“…simply bringing lonely people together may not result in new friendships because the thoughts and behaviors of lonely individuals make them less attractive to one another as relationship partners.”
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The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review (Masi et al., 2011).