Could your thoughts be making you more lonely?
Tuesday, September 19, 2023

After the physical distancing, constant Zoom meetings and screen-centric lifestyles we have gotten accustomed to during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us can use a thought tune-up for socializing in real life.

How exactly do we make small talk again? What do you say to someone at a work or social event who you don’t really know or haven’t seen in a long time? And should we even bother calling that friend we haven’t talked to in three years?

It’s worth overcoming our feelings of awkwardness to connect with others because social connection is critical to human well-being. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, finds that satisfying relationships are key to happiness, health and longevity.

As a society, however, we’re going in the opposite direction. At least half of all adults in the United States report feeling lonely. Loneliness is such an urgent public health concern that the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in May 2023 to call attention to the problem. Loneliness doesn’t just feel bad; it’s bad for our physical and mental health — associated with greater risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.

Barriers to social connection

While there may be many barriers to social connection — perhaps we live far away from loved ones, experience health issues that prevent getting out as much as we might like or have supplanted socializing with social media — one of the biggest obstacles is actually 100% within our grasp to change: our thinking.

Loneliness is a subjective, internal feeling. “It’s the distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy writes in his advisory.

This lonely feeling can affect our thinking about social engagements in maladaptive ways, researchers say. When we feel lonely, the world looks like a less friendly place. We become more likely to see social events as threatening and unappealing, develop negative expectations about social encounters and tend to remember more negative social interactions. This, in turn, becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we inadvertently act in ways that lead to negative social exchanges, thus confirming our negative expectations.

For example, we may have a pessimistic attitude about the social event we’re about to attend -- “I never have any fun at these things” — which gives us a sour perspective that makes us decide not to go, thereby erasing the chance for social connection. Loneliness researchers call this a “regulatory loop,” which, over time, negatively impacts social connections and overall health and well-being.

The good news is that addressing unhelpful thinking around social events and behaviors has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness, both in the short term and over time. In fact, studies show interventions that address maladaptive thought patterns are among the most effective when it comes to reducing loneliness.

Unravel unhelpful thoughts

Using techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy — a therapeutic approach that involves recognizing distorted thought patterns and replacing them with more supportive, helpful thoughts and behaviors — can help disrupt the “regulatory loop” of loneliness that gets in the way of social connection.

Here’s how to try out these techniques on yourself:

Examine your thoughts: Investigate what you may be thinking about an upcoming social event or potential social interaction, such as calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Loneliness can cause automatic negative thoughts to arise in response to these scenarios.

Be on the lookout for such thoughts as: “They probably don’t want to hear from me,” “I won’t know anybody there so I shouldn’t bother going,” “I’m just not likable,” “This  meeting/party/class/gathering won’t be fun.”

Rather than regarding these predictions as indisputable facts, consider them hypotheses to be tested.

Also, be aware of barrier narratives that might arise. Thoughts like “They’re probably too busy to chat/get together,” “If they wanted to talk, they would call me,” or “I don’t have enough time” could be signs of unhelpful thinking.

Ask yourself questions: Automatic negative thoughts can be so familiar as to seem true. Maybe you really won’t know anyone at the social event you’re considering, but how can you be sure? Have you seen the guest list?

To get underneath automatic negative thoughts and examine their validity, it can be helpful to ask ourselves questions, such as:

  • Can I be 100% certain that my predictions are true? (Probably not.)
  • Is there a chance my negative feelings about this could be automatic thoughts affected by loneliness?
  • What if this social event is more fun than I anticipate?
  • Right now, it feels unlikely, but is it possible I could actually make a new friend, or at least have a decent conversation with someone?
  • What if calling that friend I haven’t talked to actually makes their day? What if they are feeling lonely and really need someone to reach out?

It may feel awkward to question your thoughts in this way, but it’s worth seeing whether loneliness is skewing your perceptions of potential social interactions, thereby preventing you from making the kinds of connections that would alleviate lonely feelings.

Check your behavior: Becoming less lonely requires not just changes in our thought patterns, but changes in our behaviors. Still, you don’t have to jump straight into the deep end. Try these strategies to kickstart behavior change:

  • Give yourself a pep talk: Consider a time that you were nervous or apprehensive about something and did it anyway, or bring to mind a social outing that left you feeling great.
  • Start small: If going to a social gathering feels like too much, start by making smaller connections in your immediate surroundings. Say hi to the postal carrier, smile at a person you pass on the street, or ask the checkout clerk at the grocery store how their day is going.
  • Give yourself an out: If you find yourself making excuses about going to a social event, remember that it doesn’t need to be a lifetime commitment. Remind yourself that if you are truly miserable while out and about, you are free to go home. Promise yourself to stick it out for 15 minutes before throwing in the towel.

Even if going to a social gathering or reaching out to a friend feels like stepping outside your comfort zone, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. Loneliness leads to a diminished quality of life and social connection does the opposite.