Lonely? A mindfulness app used in a study might be able help

Loneliness and isolation is our modern affliction, fueled by technology that keeps our communication virtual and remote. Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has said there is a “loneliness epidemic,” and social isolation is increasingly a public health concern for people of every age. Loneliness is especially dangerous because it is contagious, Dr. Murthy said – “one person’s loneliness can have an effect on another person.”

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth and Pennsylvania State Universities developed a smartphone-based mindfulness training that a study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, showed can help people feel less lonely and encourage them to reach out to others.

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The researchers used “acceptance skills training,” a mindfulness meditation technique, delivered via smartphone, in a controlled trial.

The mindfulness technique had two components: the first was learning to pay attention and be aware of – to monitor – your experiences in the present. For example, you can note how your body feels, what you’re thinking, any images that flit through your head.

The second step was to learn how to be open to and accept those experiences, instead of judging or labeling them. Instead, simply keep an open mind.

For example, you can observe the experience of waiting in an extremely long line without judging it as irritating,  or even the thing that’s going to ruin your day and shorten your temper. Instead, simply observe it, and take it for what it is; neither positive nor negative.

“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,” J. David Creswell, associate professor of psychology and researcher, said in a release.

For the study, over 150 adults were randomly assigned to one of three 14-day smartphone-based “mindfulness interventions.” One group received training in monitoring and acceptance skills for 20 minutes each day. Another was given training in monitoring skills only. A third group received no mindfulness training, but instead was taught common coping techniques. Each group was also given brief daily homework assignments.

The results

Participants that received training in monitoring and acceptance skills saw the greatest benefits: a 22% reduction in daily loneliness, and increased social contact by an average of two interactions each day.

The monitoring-only mindfulness group, which did not get acceptance skills training, did not show any benefit. It seems that acceptance a key part of the equation.

“Loneliness and social isolation are among the most robust known risk factors for poor health and early death. But so far, few interventions have been effective for reducing loneliness and increasing social contact,” said Emily Lindsay, who led the study as a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon and who is now a research scientist at the University of Pittsburg, in a release.

“Our research shows that a 14-day smartphone-based mindfulness program can target both, and that practice in welcoming and opening to all of our inner experiences — good or bad — is the key ingredient for these effects,” said Lindsay.

Although the mindfulness app was only designed for the study, we hope the researchers will turn it into a real product that we can all buy from Google Play.

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