No one is immune to feeling lonely from time to time, but one of the easiest things to think when you’re in this situation is that you’re going through it alone. The irony is that no one is ever alone in feeling alone, but giving ourselves a hard time comes hand in hand with feeling lonely. And it’s hardly surprising, when loneliness causes anxiety, anger and negative thinking, and less optimism, according to research. But a new study shows how the secret to beating loneliness is way easier than previously thought: a simple change in mindset may be all you need to overcome loneliness.
The problem with loneliness is that the downwards spiral of emotion it can cause makes it more difficult to pick ourselves up and get out of the rut we’re in. There’s nothing actually “wrong” with anyone who’s struggling with loneliness, but the reason we may start to doubt ourselves is because loneliness can also affect our self-esteem, and low self-esteem can damage our mental wellbeing. So how do we get out of this rut and stop loneliness taking over? One way to do this is to stop comparing our social lives to others' and thinking we have fewer friends than everyone else. In other words, start to think like you’ve already beaten loneliness.
In order to come to this conclusion, researchers from the University of British Columbia, Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School asked more than 1,000 students how many friends they had made since starting the college year, and how many they think their peers had made. They found that almost half believed their peers had made more close friends than they had themselves. In a second survey, they found that students who held this belief reported having lower levels of well-being. Those who estimated that their peers had only made a few more friends than them were more motivated to try and make new friends than those who imagined a vast different between the size of their friend group compared to everyone else’s.
That is to say, if you believe you have way fewer friends than those around you, you’re more likely to write yourself off as a hopeless case, or, as the researchers put it, “Give up and feel it isn’t even worth trying.”
“In our data, we see that thinking other people have more friends is linked to greater feelings of loneliness and lower feelings of happiness,” the study’s researcher and assistant professor at Harvard Business School, Ashley Whillans, tells Bustle. “Over time, people who thought their peers had many more friends than them seem to make the fewest new friends. In contrast, people who thought their peers had a few more friends than them made the most friends over time.”
But it’s all an illusion, anyway. The researchers argue that the reason students felt this way is because socializing is so public: We see people eating out together at restaurants, or shopping together, rather than spending time alone indoors. And then we make conclusions.
Whillans says that this can happen when we’re in a new social environment, such as starting college, when we don’t know much about our peers’ social lives. “We might feel uncertain about where we stand relative to our peers. So, we might rely more on information in our environment to understand how we are doing relative to our peers. Since people are often out socializing in public and we see people out in public with friends more than we see people alone, we might then come to the conclusion that our peers have more friends than we do,” she says.
She advises anyone in this situation to be open and honest about it.
“People who feel lonely might also want to talk to other people who are new to their social environment too,” she says. “Sharing stories about the transition to being somewhere new might help normalize this idea that making life transitions is hard, thereby promoting well-being.”
In an age when we’re inundated with the best of other people’s lives on social media, it’s easy to assume we’re the only person in the world without an exciting social life. But the truth is, the outside world doesn’t show the people spending Friday night in bed alone with Netflix when everyone else is at a party they weren’t invited to. Remembering this — that you're not alone in feeling lonely — is the first and most important step to take to kick loneliness to the curb.