- Science has identified effective approaches to challenge loneliness and build a more fulfilling social life.
- Cognitive restructuring is a technique for challenging negative thinking patterns and creating healthier ones.
- In behavioral activation, you break cycles of avoidance by intentionally engaging in hard social situations.
This post is part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 of this series introduced how global efforts to create a less lonely world are gaining steam.
Social bonds are crucial to human life, shaping our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Just as our relationships are usually our greatest sources of joy and meaning, isolation can be a profound psychological burden.
Over the past century, the field of clinical psychology has developed an evidence base of effective approaches to challenging loneliness and building a more fulfilling social life. These approaches aim to counter the cycles of negative thoughts and actions that perpetuate loneliness. They are easy to learn but require consistent effort and some bravery to put into practice.
Challenge Negative Thinking Patterns
One particularly daunting aspect of chronic loneliness is how it biases one’s thinking toward pessimism and hypervigilance. Despite wanting to find friends, a seriously lonely person battles a persistent flood of negative, automatic thoughts—often self-doubts and flashbacks to times they were left out.
Likewise, they consistently fail to remember their positive social experiences—the times they felt appreciated, had fun, and made new friends. Although these emotionally charged negative thoughts are almost never entirely true, we tend to accept them uncritically as facts.
Cognitive restructuring is a technique for identifying and replacing biased thoughts with healthier thinking patterns. For example, if someone gives you a strange look at a party, you might be suddenly struck by the thought, “Everyone thinks I’m weird.”
To use cognitive restructuring, first, you need to notice the thought as it flashes by. Next, note the feelings that accompany the thought (i.e., a wave of dejection). Finally, consider if there might be a more accurate and optimistic version of the thought; for example, “I had one awkward interaction, but I know plenty of people like me, so it’s no big deal.”
Cognitive restructuring is a simple skill, but when trained enough to become a habit, it can be potent, preventing negative thoughts from spiraling and perpetuating loneliness.
Take Action Despite Doubts
The defining behavioral characteristic of loneliness is avoiding stressful social situations: For example, staying home instead of reaching out to an acquaintance because they might respond negatively. Avoidance may spare us from discomfort in the moment, but it reinforces our fear, making us more likely to avoid social challenges in the future. As a result, we miss out on the serendipitous good times and good people that we would surely encounter in the social world.
Behavioral activation is a powerful technique for breaking this cycle of avoidance. In it, one intentionally engages in positive social behaviors despite doubts that their efforts will pay off.
Behavioral activation works because it provides real-world evidence that social situations often go far better than one feared they would. Even if our efforts to connect are unsuccessful, we learn that an awkward social situation is really nothing to be afraid of.
If I’ve been avoiding talking to new people, asking a coworker to get lunch probably won’t solve my loneliness; it will likely go just OK. However, each time I make the effort to connect, I build skills and momentum in the right direction.
In the long term, behavioral activation interrupts avoidant cycles and creates opportunities to enjoy social life and form meaningful connections. It takes effort and bravery to expose oneself to the uncertainty and stress of the social world, but it’s an adventure worth pursuing.
Earn Confidence by Practicing Social Skills
Another science-backed strategy for challenging one’s loneliness is building social skills. Social skills improve confidence in communication and thereby help to form and strengthen relationships.
One example is active listening: using eye contact, sharing genuine reactions, and asking open-ended questions to convey attention and appreciation to a conversation partner. Another is assertiveness: learning to stand up for oneself while also taking the wishes of others into account.
Even those of us who feel confident in our social skills likely have plenty of room to improve. While practicing social skills may seem awkward or inauthentic, doing so allows for more genuine interactions and helps your conversation partners feel more comfortable.
Work Through Barriers
Although they are simple, building these skills is by no means easy or painless—improvement requires a willingness to consistently leave the safety of avoidance and face the possibility of social rejection. Therapy is one way to get help. It is also easier to find high-quality support for loneliness than ever before. Research exploring ways to share skills for overcoming loneliness with as many people as possible, like Anton Käll’s work at Linköping University and my work at the University of California, Irvine, and the Northwestern Feinberg Medical School, is showing promising results.
For people suffering from loneliness, reaching out to strangers or practicing social skills can feel impossible. Without friends or family to contact, it is easy to feel trapped in solitude.
But the truth is that there is almost always a way to try to connect. One place to start is volunteering in your community—in helping others, you help yourself. Websites like MeetUp can also help you to find friendly groups of people nearby who share your interests.
Online communities count, too. While these spaces are not replacements for face-to-face interaction, they have unique advantages over in-person alternatives, helping many to overcome barriers to connection and find genuine validation and belonging.
Serious loneliness can skew our thinking towards hypervigilance and self-doubt, making us believe that our efforts in reaching out for connection are doomed to fail. As a result, many lonely people learn to avoid social situations altogether.
Scientific evidence has demonstrated that strategies like cognitive restructuring, behavioral activation, and social skills training can be profoundly impactful, challenging negative patterns in the ways we think, feel, and act.
Access the Overcoming Loneliness Program, a free resource that my team and I created.
These science-based tools are effective because they are simple and near-universal. In other words, they might be just as useful for lonely monkeys as they are for humans. Yet, for many of us, the problem of loneliness involves deeper questions. Part 3 of this piece draws from philosophers and wisdom traditions to explore loneliness as a human problem.