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Feeling alone? That can make social interactions go poorly

December 8, 2018 GMT

We all experience brief loneliness – perhaps even during the holidays – but a study suggests your feeling-alone blues can negatively impact social interactions and make you feel worse.

Before reaching out to others, use the antidote of active solitude to think about positive times when you felt connected, said Sarah Arpin, Gonzaga University psychology assistant professor.

Arpin collaborated in new research on the social consequences of temporary loneliness, and how feeling lonely can impact personal interactions and perceptions. The study examined nearly 100 people, divided into pairs with one feeling lonely and the other not, and those two example individuals told each other a recent positive personal story.

“Lonely people were reporting that even though they were feeling temporary loneliness, they still showed some differences in line with more chronic levels of loneliness,” Arpin said.

“They were not as positive, and they perceived that their lab partner was not supportive.”

She worked with Cynthia Mohr, a Portland State University professor, and the work was recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Another finding showed that the study participants who felt socially connected, when paired with lonely people, reported less positive moods after those interactions. They also perceived that the lonely person wasn’t supportive of their described positive experience.

“It’s almost as if the consequences of loneliness were bleeding over and impacting the experience,” Arpin said. “For self-disclosure to be beneficial, it must be received with a supportive response. So the person we’re disclosing to needs to make us feel understood, validated and cared for. If we don’t get that response, actually self-disclosure can make us feel pretty bad.”

This might contribute to a loneliness cycle, particularly if a person’s negative perceptions cause others who are not lonely to avoid future interactions. The study supports a body of research that when people feel socially disconnected or left out, even temporarily, there are cognitive consequences.

In essence: If you’re lonely, even if it’s temporary, you might be more socially awkward. And that can cause those around you to be less interested in being around you.

“We may perceive that now all of our social interactions are going poorly, and we may feel a lot of negative emotions,” she said. “Usually this negativity promotes more withdrawal behavior.”

A common experience

When asked to describe someone affected by temporary loneliness, Arpin cited college students living away from home for the first time, a person after the death of a loved one or individuals affected by major life changes such as a move to a new city or a divorce.

Even the holidays, a time when people traditionally gather, can spark moments of temporary loneliness, Arpin said. That can be especially true for people who either have recently ended a relationship or had a spouse die, or they generally don’t feel they have anybody to share festive times.

“I think these times when there is almost an expectation of being connected, those things can make loneliness really salient,” she said.

But understanding temporary loneliness – along with its consequences – also helps us realize we all have that in common at different points in our life, she said.

“It’s really important in helping people to understand that loneliness is a very common experience and to understand the consequences of loneliness. That it’s painful. It influences how we think about our relationships in a way that’s not helpful.

“You tell someone who is feeling lonely, just get out there and make some friends, but given what we know about the consequences of loneliness, that’s not going to work. There needs to be something else that intervenes on those negative thoughts, such as that self-reflection.”

Study group

At PSU where Arpin did her doctoral studies, the researchers recruited a group of women as peers who were all strangers. The participants first filled out a series of questionnaires about their current moods and experiences.

Individuals then were placed alone in separate rooms to do a self-reflection activity. Half were asked to think back on a time when they felt like they had nobody to connect to, and then they verbally described that experience to a video camera while alone in a room.

The other half of the participants reflected about a time when they felt solidly connected to other people and then spoke alone before the camera. Researchers then paired up in a room two women from opposite reflection groups, one feeling lonely and another feeling connected, and the pair took turns describing a recent good experience.

“The major finding was that people who were made to feel lonely before the interaction reported less positive mood afterward, they enjoyed the interaction less and they reported feeling the lab partner was not supportive of their disclosure when they were describing their positive event,” Arpin said.

When people find they are feeling temporarily lonely, Arpin points to a body of research supporting that writing in a journal, listening to music and trying to think about past experiences when you felt connected often helps stop a cycle of negative thinking sparked by loneliness.

Reconnecting

Some researchers link temporary loneliness, also called transient loneliness, to an evolutionary need that motivates us to reconnect to social groups. It’s different than chronic loneliness as a long-term condition often associated with depression.

“Our finding showed that actually if we are going out and reconnecting immediately when we are feeling lonely, that interaction may not go very well,” Arpin said.

“That makes sense because some of the consequences of loneliness are toxic. They make us perceive that others aren’t supportive of us, and so from a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy perspective, lonely people may act in a way that makes others act distant or cold toward them …

“Any given person on a day when they are feeling more lonely than usual, it may be more beneficial for them to try something that would involve stepping back and reflecting on a time when they did feel connected.”

Arpin encourages reconnecting within social groups as “the end goal.”

In the future, she wants to do further research to test the boundaries on how much self-reflection and positive use of solitude can help people cycle out of negative thinking and feeling lonely.

“While our findings suggest that immediate social interactions may be consequential, that’s not to say those social interactions should never happen,” she said. “They absolutely should happen; there just seems to be a need for some step in the middle … re-framing how we think about our relationships.”

If the thought of interacting sounds good again, get out there, she added.

“I want to remind people that they are not alone, and when we feel lonely, this can influence how we think about a lot of different things.”