Mindfulness Training on Your Phone Could Help with Loneliness, A New Study Says

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Smartphones present an interesting paradox: despite connecting people more than ever before, numerous studies have also linked them with heightened levels of loneliness, anxiety, and unhappiness in users. Scientists are now interested in assessing how the problem may also serve as part of the solution via interventions like smartphone-based mindfulness training. New research from Carnegie Mellon University found that mindfulness training could help people feel less lonely and increase social interaction.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, was conducted on a small sample of 153 adults. The subjects were randomly assigned to various smartphone-based intervention programs made up of 14 lessons. These programs were two week long mindfulness interventions that focused on developing an individual’s ability to “monitor” moments happening in the present, essentially teaching them to be aware of and live in the moment. Alongside monitoring, the intervention emphasizes viewing present-moment experiences with “an orientation of acceptance” to help alter how individuals understand and engage with other people. These are the two key components of mindfulness interventions, according to J. David Creswell, study co-author and associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

"The first [component] is learning to use your attention to monitor your present-moment experiences, whether that's noting body sensations, thoughts or images,” Creswell said in a statement. “The second is about learning to adopt an attitude of acceptance toward those experiences — one of openness, curiosity and non-judgment."

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Accordingly, one of the study’s mindfulness training groups taught both monitoring and acceptance, while another focused on only monitoring. The third group, acting as a control, didn’t get mindfulness training and instead learned about coping techniques. Over the course of two weeks, each group engaged in training for 20 minutes a day. Additionally, all of the subjects’ levels of daily loneliness and social contact was measured before, throughout, and after the study.

“We predicted that developing openness and acceptance toward present experiences is critical for reducing loneliness and increasing social contact,” the researchers wrote in the study. Just as predicted, the group that received training in both monitoring and acceptance reported a reduction of loneliness in their daily lives by 22 percent. This group also exhibited a decrease in social isolation in their daily lives: they had social contact with, on average, one additional person each day, as well as two more social interactions per day compared with both the control and monitoring only groups. Based on these results, the mindfulness program was only effective for social benefits when it included training for monitoring and accepting skills.

"Learning to be more accepting of your experience, even when it's difficult, can have carryover effects on your social relationships. When you are more accepting toward yourself, it opens you up to be more available to others," said Creswell.

While more studies on the topic are necessary, the results highlight the potential future uses of mindfulness therapies to promote healthy socialization in people. The fact that these interventions may be effective on a platform as accessible as smartphones is the cherry on top.