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Loneliness

Why Buying Stuff Can Make People Feel Less Lonely

The dangers of compensatory consumption.

Key points

  • One way people cope with feelings of loneliness and not belonging is through consumption.
  • Consumption experiences include various products that help us feel connected—products like social media, nostalgic items, and pre-owned objects.
  • Consumption can inadvertently increase loneliness (e.g., due to paranoia, materialism, narcissism) and make it difficult to connect with others.
annabelisolde/Pixabay
Source: annabelisolde/Pixabay

Many people experience loneliness. They include those who desire more friends but fail to form friendships (e.g., due to low trust, lack of time, fear of rejection). And those who prefer to be in a romantic relationship but, because of various factors (introversion or shyness), find themselves involuntarily single.

COVID-19 has also created a pandemic of loneliness and associated mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

So, how do people cope with loneliness? Sometimes, through consumption (e.g., becoming materialistic, buying nostalgic products), according to a recent review by Fumagalli, et al. The paper, to be published in the August issue of Current Opinion in Psychology, is summarized below.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness refers to the subjective experience of deficiencies in one’s social relationships, the sense that these relationships are lacking in quality or are unsatisfying in important ways.

As this definition shows, there is a difference between loneliness and objective social isolation. An individual may feel lonely despite being in a crowd or having many friends (but perhaps too few close friends). Another person who is socially isolated may, in contrast, feel satisfied with having limited social connections or spending long periods of time in solitude.

Research shows loneliness is associated with a variety of unhealthy behaviors, including maladaptive emotion regulation strategies or difficulty exercising self-control, and is a strong predictor of many negative outcomes (e.g., greater anxiety and depression, increased pain).

One way we cope with loneliness is through compensatory consumption experiences.

Compensatory consumption

Compensatory consumption refers to the use of products to satisfy the psychological need to belong.

For instance, a person who fears rejection may be more willing to purchase a product they hate but one which their partner desires, as a way to signal shared preferences.

Compensatory consumption experiences can be neutral or even positive (e.g., donating to charities).

However, they can also be harmful, such as when one is willing to engage in excessive drinking or drug abuse in order to fit in and fulfill their need to belong.

Of course, some products, such as social media, are designed specifically for social purposes. One would imagine they are particularly helpful for lonely people, allowing them to reconnect with friends or communicate with individuals who share their interests.

Yet, surprisingly, electronic communication has failed to reduce loneliness. In fact, social media use has been associated with increased loneliness. Why? Potential reasons include greater fear of missing out (FOMO) and having lower quality social interactions (when compared to in-person interactions).

Consuming products to reduce loneliness

Some products provide an indirect or symbolic connection to others. An example is purchasing second-hand items (e.g., a used comic book, game, or watch). Or buying nostalgic products (e.g., a Volkswagen Beetle instead of a SmartCar).

Other products reduce loneliness more directly by serving a “social connection function.” Specifically, lonely people may be more likely to develop emotional relationships with brands or anthropomorphize products (attributing human characteristics to them).

In fact, research shows excluded or lonely individuals show a greater preference for anthropomorphized products. Some examples of such items are Mr. Clean, the Geico gecko, and M&M characters.

What are the potential costs of using products to reduce loneliness? One risk is that the substitution of products for human connection becomes gradually permanent. This can take the form of amassing possessions and becoming more materialistic. And materialism, research shows, has a negative impact on happiness and well-being.

Indeed, becoming materialistic in order to reduce loneliness could ironically lead to increased loneliness, due to possessions taking the place of social interactions. This then results in even more loneliness...and a vicious cycle develops.

Loneliness and self-preservation motives

As noted earlier, social connections are important for survival; therefore, loneliness tends to activate the motive to reconnect. However, loneliness may also activate self-preservation and avoidance of others. Why?

Because feelings of loneliness not only warn us about insufficient protection and support but also about the dangers inherent in desperate and “indiscriminate attempts to form trusting social relationships.” Hence, solitary individuals often become increasingly hypervigilant, self-focused, or self-centered.

Needless to say, these behaviors make it difficult to connect with others. Being distrustful, for instance, is one potential reason why chronically lonely individuals are not comfortable with physical closeness and interpersonal touch.

This is unfortunate since interpersonal touch can have positive effects on mental health and well-being (e.g., reduce stress, anxiety, and depression), and be of tremendous benefit to lonely individuals.

The discomfort with interpersonal touch has an impact on consumer preferences as well. As the authors note, lonelier individuals “show lower preferences for consumer-related services (e.g., massage, dance lessons) and service encounters compared to less lonely consumers.”

pexels/Pixabay
Source: pexels/Pixabay

Takeaway

Various personal and social factors (e.g., shyness, introversion, being bullied and ostracized, experiencing sexism or racism) threaten social connection, acceptance, and belonging. In short, they increase the risk of loneliness.

In general, loneliness occurs when people cannot form satisfactory relationships and are unable to meet their need to belong, whether to a group, community, or otherwise.

So, it is not the number of relationships, but whether our interactions help us meet social and belonging needs. Indeed, too much socializing is not healthy either.

Sometimes consumption-related coping strategies backfire, causing even greater feelings of loneliness and difficulties connecting (e.g., due to paranoia, materialism, narcissism). Thus, we need to find a happy medium—between the extreme of avoiding all products that could help us connect with others, and the other extreme of becoming overly reliant on products to satisfy emotional or social needs.

Facebook image: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

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