If you’re feeling lonely, the natural thing to do might be to seek out company: to call a friend or say yes to a hangout.

But, counterintuitively, a new study finds that if we’re very lonely, being around other people may not actually help us feel any better.

Degrees of loneliness

Person standing alone on a dock by the water at dusk, with clouds

Across three studies, researchers surveyed over 3,000 people in Germany and the U.K. about their daily experiences. In one study, people recalled events from the day before; in the other studies, people received pings by phone up to seven times a day and filled out mini-surveys about what they were doing and how they were feeling in the past hour.

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In each, the researchers found that people who felt lonelier had lower well-being in that moment (in terms of the kinds of emotions they were feeling, like happiness, anger, sadness, and boredom, as well as their sense of satisfaction and meaning). That wasn’t surprising.

What was surprising is that this pattern was even stronger when people were in a social situation, when we might expect to be protected from the pain of loneliness.

“Simply spending time with others . . . may even backfire,” write researchers Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren of Tilburg University in the Netherlands. 

Here’s another way to look at the findings: On average, people felt better when they were with others. But that wasn’t the case for people feeling very lonely, who either felt the same or worse when they were around other humans.

The burden of loneliness

Why? The third study, conducted five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, suggested two reasons why being around others might not comfort us when we’re feeling lonely.

First, people feeling lonely had a greater desire to be alone—and the more they wanted solitude, the worse they felt, especially when they were in a social situation.

“The presence of others or having to engage in social interactions under these circumstances might feel particularly burdensome and aggravate the unpleasant feeling of loneliness,” write Stavrova and Ren.

On top of that, people feeling lonelier had more negative social interactions, which also seemed to contribute to how bad they felt. When we’re lonely, the researchers explain, we may act in ways that make socializing less fulfilling than it could be.

“Loneliness predisposes people to approach social interactions with cynicism, distrust, and an expectation of rejection and betrayal [which] might in turn negatively affect other people’s behavior towards them,” write Stavrova and Ren.

“Loneliness might make it harder to establish a true sense of connection with others. Having to socialize with others without achieving a sense of connection might feel particularly draining and meaningless, damaging one’s psychological well-being.”

Find a way that works for you

Does this mean that social interaction can’t help the lonely?

Certainly not. This study included all kinds of social interaction, from having a conversation with a friend to simply being in line at a grocery store. It’s possible that certain types of social interactions are helpful when we’re lonely—like getting emotional support from a trusted confidant—and others are not.

We also shouldn’t discount the value of solitude. If lonely people need some time alone to cope and feel better, there’s nothing wrong with that. “Research on solitude suggests that being alone can be functional, allowing individuals to regulate their emotions,” write Stavrova and Ren.

Overall, this study is a good reminder of how complex loneliness is; it’s more of a state of mind than a simple indicator of how many connections we have. The triggers for loneliness change across our lifetime, and it can’t be easily solved by getting out of the house.

In fact, a review of studies found that the best strategy might be to teach ourselves to question our automatic negative thoughts, like blaming ourselves for feeling bad or thinking that no one wants to be our friend.

Hopefully, all this can help us be a bit more understanding to others when they suffer from loneliness, and to ourselves, as well.

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