- Loneliness isn’t the same as isolation, as people can be happy in solitude and miserable in a group.
- In-person exchanges diminish loneliness more than online ones do, but the quality also counts.
- Reducing negative interactions may be more important for mental health than increasing positive exchanges.
Thanks to the internet, we live in an age when people are more connected than they’ve ever been before. Social media sites let us keep up with the daily events in the lives of those we care about. And videoconferencing apps enable us to have virtual “face-to-face” meetings in real-time with people almost anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, dating sites and chat groups help us cast a much wider net for finding friends and lovers than has ever been possible before.
And yet, self-reports of loneliness have been on the rise for half a century. How is it that people can be more connected than ever and yet experience greater degrees of loneliness than previous generations? This was the question that University of South Florida psychologist Gabriella Silva and colleagues investigated in an article they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.1
The Nature of Loneliness
Silva and colleagues begin the article by exploring the nature of loneliness. It is not the same thing as isolation.
For one thing, people often seek out—and truly enjoy—time alone. Solitude gives them respite to unwind and destress. It also provides them the opportunity to pursue personal interests, such as writing or painting, that can only be done alone.
For another thing, people often report feeling lonely even when they’ve been interacting with others all day. This is especially true when those interactions have been negative or stressful. This observation tells us that loneliness isn’t just about a lack of human interactions. Rather, it’s about the quality of those interactions.
Loneliness is an unpleasant feeling, but it’s an important way for our body and mind to let us know that we’re not getting the personal interactions we need. We’re social animals, and loneliness drives us to seek out the company of others, just as hunger drives us to seek out food and thirst drives us to seek out water.
However, chronic loneliness isn’t just a problem because it leaves us in an uncomfortable state. In fact, when we experience loneliness over extended periods of time, we put ourselves at risk of both mental and physical health problems. Chronic loneliness is a known risk factor for depression and suicide, as well as for heart problems and other ailments that can lead to premature death.
Online Versus In-Person Interactions
Research suggests that online interactions don’t reduce loneliness to the same extent as face-to-face interactions. Psychologists speculate that this is because we don’t get the full range of body language cues online as we do in person, thus rendering them less satisfying.
At the same time, there’s also evidence that the quality of interactions, whether in person or online, is important as well. Interactions in which we feel accepted and supported go a great way toward alleviating loneliness, while those that make us feel rejected or threatened only increase our feelings of isolation.
To explore the joint effects of social interaction type (in person or online) and quality (positive or negative), Silva and colleagues followed nearly 300 participants for two weeks using a technique known as experience sampling. Every evening for 14 days, each participant received a text message linking them to a survey, where they responded to questions about the quantity and quality of their social interactions that day. They also indicated their level of loneliness that day.
The results showed, as expected, that in-person interactions were generally judged to be more satisfying than those that took place online. However, that doesn’t mean that online interactions are necessarily unsatisfactory. Given that this study took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, participants who reported a sufficient number of online interactions clearly felt less lonely than those who had few interactions of either type.
Likewise, as expected, the researchers found that it wasn’t the quantity of social interactions but rather the quality of them that mattered most. Generally speaking, it only took a few interactions in which the person felt accepted and supported to alleviate loneliness for the day. Especially during the lockdowns, friends and loved ones could maintain contact and provide social support for each other through the use of technology when face-to-face interactions were impossible.
The researchers also found, unsurprisingly, that negative interactions in which they felt rejected or threatened only increased feelings of loneliness. This was true for both in-person and online experiences. This finding supports the contention that loneliness is about a lack of social support specifically rather than social interaction in general.
How to Decrease Feelings of Loneliness
Noting that loneliness is a feeling that fluctuates over time, the researchers asked about the long-term effects of positive and negative social interactions. On days when respondents reported mostly positive interactions, they reported low levels of loneliness, and vice versa. However, the researchers also looked at levels of loneliness on the following day to see whether these good or bad days had a lingering effect.
Answering this question, it turns out, depends on the quality of the interactions. On a day dominated by positive social interactions, people feel low levels of loneliness. But this feeling of connectedness doesn’t linger into the next day. It’s as if each night, our loneliness meter gets reset. That means a good day doesn’t provide any buffer against negative experiences the next day.
However, when people have a bad day and feel high levels of loneliness, this feeling of being unconnected lingers into the next day, even when the quality of social interaction that day is better. This so-called negativity bias, in which negative social interactions far outweigh positive ones, is quite common in relationships.
For instance, your boss may list a number of areas in which your performance is quite satisfactory but may then mention one area for improvement, and afterward, all you can think about is the one negative comment. This is also why couples’ counselors recommend people provide their partner with at least five positive remarks for each negative one just to reach a balance. In social situations, the negatives far outweigh the positives.
The researchers conclude that the best way to allay feelings of loneliness is to avoid negative social interaction as much as possible. It doesn’t take much in the way of accepting and supportive exchanges with others to dispel loneliness for a day. But it also doesn’t take much in the way of rejecting and stressful interaction to not only ruin our day but the next one as well.
1. Silva, G., Ruba, R., Brennan, J., Rottenberg, J., & Goodman, F. R. (2023). What allays loneliness? A fine-grained examination of daily social interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/02654075231181709