While it may seem logical that social interaction and improved social skills would be an effective intervention for loneliness, a new study recently completed at the University of Chicago suggests something quite different.
Funded by the National Institute on Aging and the John D. Templeton Foundation, the study aimed to find the best method for reducing the negative effects of loneliness. Results suggest that the best methods for combating loneliness are those that change a person’s perceptions and incorrect assumptions about themselves and the people around them.
“People are becoming more isolated, and this health problem is likely to grow,” said John Cacioppo, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. “If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what we can do to mitigate it.”
Other research completed at the university in recent years suggests that loneliness impacts health measures by negatively impacting blood pressure, sleep, the risk for dementia and more serious health issues such as heart disease.
A sweeping analysis of past studies on loneliness was performed by researchers going back to research that tested interventions from 1970 to 1999. Ultimately, the methods for intervention were narrowed to four categories that included improving social skills, increasing social support, creating opportunities for social interaction, and addressing social cognition.
Comparisons were made of studies that offered an intensive study design of random, controlled trials, revealing that studies with “maladative social cognition” produced strong, positive results.
Social cognition strategies revolve around a person’s perceptions of self, pointing to treatment modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy as an effective model. These types of interventions increase a patient’s ability to break unhealthy thought patterns, ultimately helping those suffering from loneliness approach social situations with a more positive attitude.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a widely-used and accepted technique for treating other common mental health disorders such as depression and eating disorders
“We’re getting a better understanding of loneliness, that it’s more of a cognitive issue and is subject to change,” said Christopher Masi, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center and lead author of the study.
Other findings from the analysis debunked the previous belief that group formats were better than individual sessions for treating loneliness in patients. The overall analysis of studies over time revealed that there is no clear advantage for using group interventions.
“That’s not that surprising, because bringing a bunch of lonely people together is not expected to work if you understand the root causes of loneliness,” Masi said. “Several studies have shown that lonely people have incorrect assumptions about themselves and about how other people perceive them. If you bring them all together, it’s like bringing people with abnormal perceptions together, and they’re not necessarily going to click.”
The authors hope that the findings may help physicians and psychologists develop better treatments for loneliness. They further suggested that therapeutic interventions could be designed appropriate to the severity of the effects of loneliness by using social cognition tools.
The study, “A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness,” is published online by Personality and Social Psychology Review.
Source: University of Chicago Medical Center