Posted 03.19.2019 | by AMRA

Loneliness and social isolation are major risk factors for poor health and increased mortality. Additionally, U.S. loneliness ratings have steadily risen in recent decades. Mindfulness could potentially mitigate this problem by enhancing emotional regulation, thereby improving social relationships.

Lindsay et al. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Science] conducted a randomized controlled study to see if training in mindful attention to sensory and mental experience, both with and without instructions to adopt an accepting attitude towards experience, helps to reduce feelings of loneliness and increase the frequency of social interactions.

The researchers randomly assigned 153 adults reporting higher than average stress levels (67% female; 52% Caucasian; average age = 32) to one of three groups. Participants in each group agreed to watch and listen to fourteen 20-minute lessons delivered via smartphone over the course of two weeks. The lessons all contained a combination of didactic instruction and guided exercises.

Participants in the Monitoring + Acceptance (M+A) group received training in present moment awareness plus training in accepting experience with openness, receptivity, and equanimity. Participants in the Monitoring Only (MO) group received training in present moment awareness without training in acceptance. Those in a third Coping control group received instruction on how to reflect on, analyze, and solve problems.

Participants rated how lonely they felt and recorded their daily social contacts and how many different people they interacted with in diaries completed three days before and three days after the intervention. Participants also reported their immediate feelings of loneliness and real-time social interactions multiple times a day via cellphone (a procedure called “ecological momentary assessment”). Finally, participants completed standardized retrospective self-report measures of loneliness, social isolation, and social support prior to and 6 weeks after the start of the intervention.

Participants completed an average of 13.5 of the 14 lessons. The M+A group’s diary ratings of loneliness significantly declined from pre- to post-assessment (d = 0.44), while the MO and control groups’ ratings did not. The M+A group also significantly increased their number of daily social interactions, whether measured by diary (d = 0.47) or momentary assessment (d = 0.31). The other groups’ social interactions remained unchanged.

The M+A group reported a 22% decrease in loneliness and increased their social interactions by two interactions per day. M+A participants also reported a significant increase in the number of different people they interacted with each day (d = 0.39), while the other groups did not. In all cases, the outcomes for the M+A group were significantly better than those of the other two groups.

The standardized retrospective self-report measures of loneliness, social isolation, and social support failed to show the same between-group changes as the diary and momentary assessment measures. On these measures, loneliness declined and perceived social support increased for all groups to an equal extent, while perceived social isolation remained unchanged.

This study shows that mindfulness training can decrease daily ratings of loneliness and increase daily social interactions, but only when acceptance training is included in the intervention. This suggests that heightened attention to the present moment alone is not sufficient to reduce loneliness. The authors speculate that mindful acceptance diminishes the perception of social threat, allowing people to lower their internal barriers to social engagement.

Reference:

Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Smyth, J. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[Link to study]