Loneliness devastates our mental health because humans crave social support and interaction. And yet, in the modern world, many of us find it difficult to meet new people. Social awkwardness, shyness, and judgment, are all threats that harm our self-esteem and prevent us from forging valuable friendships. A new study, published in February 2019, suggests that mindfulness may provide a way out of these self-sabotaging cycles.
The researchers recruited 153 adults in Pittsburgh who suffered from high levels of stress. They split these participants into three groups, and each group was prescribed a separate behavioral intervention. All interventions were delivered via a smartphone app, and all had the same basic structure of 14 training sessions, each containing a 20-minute audio lesson and some practice exercises. The only important difference between these groups was the content of the lessons.
The lessons for the first group emphasized the monitoring and acceptance principles of mindfulness: monitoring is the capacity to focus our attention on our present-moment experiences, while acceptance teaches us to appreciate those experiences without judging or overthinking them. Unlike the first group, the lessons for the second group emphasized only the monitoring aspects of mindfulness, and the lessons for the third group were entirely unrelated to mindfulness (they instead focused on analytical thinking and problem-solving).
In the 3 days before and after the group interventions, the researchers assessed each participant’s social activity. They did this by sending survey links to participants, approximately every 2.5 hours, which assessed their total number of social interactions in the last couple of hours, and the number of individual people that they interacted with. These surveys were all sent out between 9am and 7pm, and participants also completed a diary entry at the end of their day assessing their experiences of loneliness.
The researchers were aiming to answer one important question with all of this data: would mindfulness improve people’s daily social interactions, and more specifically, would acceptance be a key active ingredient in making that happen?
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Let’s look at the results. First, it’s important to note that the groups before the interventions were practically identical: they had the same overall sex, age, ethnicity, education, and crucially, loneliness distributions. We can therefore reasonably attribute any differences that emerge between the groups after the intervention to the features of their training sessions.
After the interventions, the diary data showed that the first group, who trained in both monitoring and acceptance, experienced a decline in their loneliness. But the monitoring-only and non-mindfulness groups showed no change in their subjective loneliness. Clearly, the acceptance principle is a necessary component in mindfulness for helping people to feel less lonely.
But putting aside the diary reports, let’s look at the more objective data on social interaction frequencies during each participant’s day. Consistent with the diary data, participants who trained in monitoring and acceptance interacted with people more frequently following their intervention. But once again, the other two groups who trained without acceptance principles in their intervention showed no change in their daily social lives.
To hammer in the final nail, the researchers also found the same pattern of results for the total number of individual people that participants interacted with. With training in monitoring and acceptance, participants interacted with a significantly greater number of people after their intervention, while the other groups were just as lonely as they were before their interventions.
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So the acceptance element in mindfulness has several benefits for our social life. It encourages us to engage in more frequent interaction, talk to a larger number of people, and feel less lonely. These results highlight two important messages:
Mindfulness is important for not only our personal experiences, but also our social experiences. In fact, the results reiterate the tight connection between these two domains: our personal mental health and wellbeing depend on our social interactions.
Acceptance is a key active ingredient in mindfulness, at least in the context of improving our social life. Mindfulness exercises that do not incorporate the principle of acceptance may provide little benefit to our social behavior.
But why is acceptance so important for social interaction? Why would a personal meditation exercise help us to interact with more people? The simple answer is that it may promote comfort. Any introvert will tell you about the discomfort they often experience when interacting with new people. This discomfort comes primarily from the threat of being judged by others, and the constant self-conscious auditing of our own behavior in the presence of that perceived threat. Indeed, I’ve previously written about a dreadful psychological bias that we all experience to some degree, which researchers have appropriately labeled “the liking gap”: we consistently assume the worst after a new social interaction, and we underestimate how much a person likes us. Generally speaking, people like us more than we think they do.
When we train ourselves to accept our own feelings without judgment, perhaps we also worry less about the judgment of others. If the acceptance principle in mindfulness teaches us to be less judgmental and more comfortable with our feelings of anxiety, then presumably, those effects will apply equally well to social anxiety. When we become more comfortable with how we feel, we naturally become more comfortable with how other people feel about us.
As long as we are not actively trying to hurt people, we are wasting our time if we continuously worry about what they think of us. Besides, most of the time, we are simply wrong when we think that a new acquaintance dislikes us. We should accept how they feel, accept how we feel, and find something meaningful to talk about whenever we meet a welcoming person. If we’re lucky, they could become a future friend. Social connection is an essential vitamin for developing a healthy mind, so we had better start taking our regular dose.