The feeling of being lonely is the sense that you have less social contact with others than you want. It is not quite the same as the amount of social contact you have. Some people don’t engage that often with others, but they are perfectly fine with that, and so they don’t feel alone. Other people may spend a lot of time with others, but may still feel like they crave other social engagements. Being lonely is associated with poorer psychological and physical health.
One area of research has focused specifically on the relationship between loneliness and sleep. There are several inter-related questions: Is feeling lonely related to the quality of people’s sleep? What aspects of sleep are related to loneliness? And does loneliness cause sleep problems, or do difficulties with sleeping lead to feelings of loneliness? These issues are important because poor sleep can worsen cognitive decline and psychological distress.
This issue was explored in a paper by Melanie Hom, Caol Chu, Megan Rogers, and Thomas Joiner in the September 2020 issue of Clinical Psychological Science. These authors performed a meta-analysis of studies relating sleep quality to feelings of loneliness. A meta-analysis looks across many published studies to get a sense of the overall pattern of results.
They found 84 studies they could use for the analysis that looked at over 200,000 individuals. Most of these studies studied the individuals only once, but a small number of studies used a longitudinal design in which the same people were followed over time.
Overall, the results indicate that the more people express that they have sleep difficulties, the higher the level of loneliness they feel. This relationship is stronger for insomnia than for sleep complaints like nightmares. In addition, the more loneliness people express, the less effective they think their sleep was.
These results are all correlations, so it is hard to determine whether loneliness causes sleep difficulties or the reverse.
Longitudinal studies that are done over time help, because you can look to see whether sleep difficulties at one time predict later feelings of loneliness and whether loneliness early on predicts later sleep difficulties. Interestingly, sleep problems predicted later loneliness and loneliness predicted later sleep difficulties. However, the connection between earlier sleep difficulties and later loneliness was generally stronger than that between earlier loneliness and later sleep difficulties. This pattern suggests that there may be a vicious cycle, though, in which poor sleep can increase feelings of loneliness, which can in turn increase sleep difficulties.
If you are someone who has trouble sleeping, be aware that poor sleep lowers your resilience overall. Among other things, it may make it harder for you to appreciate the social contacts you have. In addition, if you are having trouble sleeping, try spending a little more time reaching out to friends and loved ones. That added social engagement just might have a positive impact on your future sleep.
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Hom, M.A., Chu, C., Rogers, M.L., & Joiner, T.E. (2020). A meta-analysis of the relationship between sleep problems and loneliness. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(5), 799-824.