Social contact is often recommended as an antidote to feelings of loneliness.
But a new study called “Alone in a Crowd: Is Social Contact Associated with Less Psychological Pain of Loneliness in Everyday Life?” challenges this commonly held belief.
Researchers Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren, based at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, examined data sets from Germany and the UK and found that rather than easing loneliness, social interactions might actually amplify its negative effects on well-being.
“These findings,” the authors write, “suggest that simply spending time with others (vs. alone) is not associated with a reduced burden of loneliness, and may even backfire.”
Balancing Act: The Buffering vs. Amplifying Theories
The researchers examined two contrasting theories.
The “buffering account” theory argues that social relationships serve as a balm, easing the detrimental impacts of loneliness on well-being.
It suggests that social bonds, significant predictors of psychological well-being, can play an essential role in providing life satisfaction and meaning.
Past research has linked robust social relationships to improved psychological well-being, physical health, and longevity, while social isolation has been associated with psychological distress and mental illness.
In stark contrast, the “amplifying account” theory proposes that the negative effects of loneliness on well-being could be intensified when in the company of others.
Chronic loneliness can push individuals towards desiring solitude, perceiving their social environment as threatening, and leading to an overall reduction in enthusiasm for social interactions.
When thrust into social situations, these feelings of loneliness might be heightened, thereby impacting psychological well-being adversely.
Moreover, loneliness can lower the quality of social interactions as individuals approach situations with cynicism, distrust, and the fear of rejection.
Consequently, this leads to poor social behavior and, more often than not, social stigmatization and ostracization, causing further psychological distress.
The current study sought to put these two opposing theories to the test using an “everyday life” approach with ecological momentary assessments.
The investigators analyzed three large datasets, including a nationally representative sample of German adults.
The aim was to uncover whether the presence of others strengthened or weakened the negative relationship between loneliness and well-being.
Three Studies Investigating the Paradox of Loneliness and Social Contact
For their paper, the researchers conducted three separate studies.
The first study used data from approximately 2,000 participants representative of the German population aged 16 and above, the so-called German Socio-Economic Panel Innovation Sample (GSOEP-IS).
This study found that the negative relationship between loneliness and well-being was amplified in the company of others, thereby endorsing the Amplifying Account theory.
Notably, this effect persisted regardless of age or gender variables.
The second study replicated the findings of the first, but using a separate sample of 265 individuals from the same dataset.
The results echoed those of the first study, with the amplifying account theory gaining further validation: the presence of others failed to elevate well-being during bouts of intense loneliness, irrespective of the participants’ gender and age.
The third study focused on the COVID-19 pandemic period.
It involved 272 UK residents, contributing 7,933 assessments.
The findings re-emphasized the amplifying impact of social interactions on the negative association between loneliness and well-being.
Even more striking, in moments of high loneliness, the presence of others was correlated with lower well-being than when alone.
The researchers found a positive correlation between loneliness and the desire for social withdrawal, which had a notably negative impact on well-being when in the company of others.
Lonelier individuals were likely to experience more negative social interactions, correlating with lower well-being.
These observations held true after controlling for factors like gender, age, and employment status.
How to Deal with Loneliness: A More Nuanced Approach
These findings, derived from analyzing thousands of real-time observations, contradict the commonly held belief that social contact is an antidote to loneliness.
They point to a more nuanced understanding of loneliness, indicating that, contrary to conventional wisdom, social contact may not necessarily alleviate the distress of loneliness, and that being in the company of others can sometimes amplify the psychological pain of loneliness.
The researchers call for further studies to delve into this paradox, perhaps paving the way for new strategies to combat loneliness.
The journey to mitigate loneliness might demand more than just increasing the amount of social contact.
Study: “Alone in a Crowd: Is Social Contact Associated with Less Psychological Pain of Loneliness in Everyday Life?”
Authors: Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren
Publication date: May 24, 2023
Published in: Journal of Happiness Studies