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These Three Moves Will Help You Stop Feeling Lonely

Research shows how to feel less socially isolated.

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Loneliness is on the rise. In 2010, roughly 40 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely on a regular basis, up from about 20 percent in the 1980s. According to the General Social Survey, an annual report on the country’s social characteristics, the number of Americans who say they have no one they can confide in nearly tripled between 1985 and 2004. Now, the average American reports zero close confidants.

Loneliness is not only getting worse, but its gravity and consequences are becoming increasingly understood. UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger found that being socially excluded activates some of the same neural regions that are activated in response to physical pain. And psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University has put forth groundbreaking work showing that loneliness is as risky to one’s health as smoking or obesity.

"There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators," Holt-Lunstad said at the annual national convention of the American Psychological Association in August. “Many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge we face is what can be done about it."

While scientists are exploring potential large-scale ways to meet this public health challenge, robust research already offers several key findings on how people can overcome loneliness in their day to day lives.

1. Talk to strangers

Many of us cringe at the idea of chatting up a stranger on the subway or in a cafe. In fact, it might seem scary, but we’d probably get more out of it than we realize.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, psychologists Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley explored why strangers near each other seldom interact. They hypothesized that either people generally find solitude more pleasant than interaction, or they misjudge the consequences of interacting. They conducted a number of experiments to test their hypotheses, one of which involved recruiting Chicago commuters to talk to people sitting near them on their ride to work. While nearly everyone expected it to be a negative experience, they reported an improved sense of well-being afterward, notably more than those in a control group who didn’t talk to nearby strangers. The unsuspecting passengers on the receiving end of these social volleys also reported increased wellbeing.

“The pleasure of connection seems contagious,” Schroeder and Epley write. “This research broadly suggests that people could improve their own momentary wellbeing—and that of others—by simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation.

2. Log off, at least sometimes

What does face-to-face contact give us that online communication lacks? For one thing, it boosts our production of endorphins, the brain chemicals that ease pain and enhance wellbeing. That’s one reason in-person interaction improves our physical health, psychologist Susan Pinker writes in The Village Effect. Getting together for dinner parties or game nights, or pretty much any social activity apart from, say, a fight club, also keeps our relationships strong, while those conducted online tend to wither over time. “Electronic media can sway voters and topple newspapers, but when it comes to human cognition and health, they’re no match for the face-to-face,” Pinker says.

A longitudinal study by Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis, published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology, confirms that Facebook is bad for our wellbeing, and points to the questionable depth of interaction on the social network as a primary reason.

“The tricky thing about social media is that while we are using it, we get the impression that we are engaging in meaningful social interaction,” Shakya and Christakis wrote in a synopsis of the study for the Harvard Business Review. “Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real-world interaction we need for a healthy life.”

3. Be neighborly

Some of our most important relationships are with the people closest to us, geographically speaking. The neighbors and co-workers who we regularly cross paths with can serve an important purpose in our broader map of social connection, even if they’re not our most meaningful and deep relationships.

Research points to the value of both “strong ties” and “weak ties” in social relationships and underscores that loose acquaintances, such as neighbors, serve an important role in our overall sense of connection with others. But research shows that we’re neglecting the very relationships that are right under our noses or on the other side of our fences. In a recent survey, a third of Americans said they never interact with their neighbors, while only 20 percent regularly spend time with them. Compare that to the 1970s, when 30 percent reported spending time with their neighbors at least twice a week.

Getting to know your neighbors yields more benefits than access to a cup of sugar when you run out. One study found that higher “neighborhood social cohesion” lowers your risk of a heart attack. So invite your neighbors over for coffee and offer to water their plants when they go out of town. You’ll be happier and healthier for it.

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