Mindfulness Training Reduces Loneliness and Increases Social Contact

Loneliness (feeling alone) and social isolation (being alone) are a growing public health concern, as they are known risk-factors for poor health. Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Lindsay et al., 2019), extends evidence that mindfulness interventions can improve social-relationship processes, by examining the mechanisms underlying such improvements. This was a randomised controlled trial which compared two mindfulness interventions — monitoring present-moment experience, with and without acceptance training — against an active control, using a smartphone app. Compared with the monitoring only and control conditions, the monitoring with acceptance condition significantly reduced daily life loneliness and increased social interaction. These findings indicate that an attitude of acceptance (equanimity) towards loneliness and social isolation is an essential element in mindfulness interventions designed to target social-relationship processes.

The primary question addressed by this study was whether removing acceptance training from a mindfulness intervention would eliminate improvements in loneliness and social interaction. One hundred and fifty three U.S. adults with above average stress levels were randomly assigned to training in mindful monitoring only (MO), mindful monitoring with acceptance (MA), or an active control condition involving free reflection, analytic thinking, and problem solving, but no mindfulness. Each intervention consisted of fourteen, 20-minute audio training lessons for managing stress, delivered daily using a smartphone app. The mindfulness interventions were designed in collaboration with Shinzen Young, and based on the Unified Mindfulness system. Outcomes were measured for three days before and after each intervention. Objective measures were made of the number of social interactions and interaction partners, using surveys administered by smartphone throughout the day, and end-of-day diaries. Subjective loneliness was measured using questions answered in end-of-day diaries. Loneliness, social isolation, and social support were also measured in the laboratory.

After the intervention, MA participants showed a 22% reduction in subjective loneliness, whereas there were no significant differences in subjective loneliness after the MO and control interventions. Participants in the MA condition reported approximately two more social interactions each day after the intervention than before. There was no significant post-intervention difference in the number of social interactions for the MO or control groups. Similarly, participants in the MA condition reported interacting with one more person each day following the intervention. There were no post-intervention differences in the number of interaction partners for MO and control groups.

These results provide evidence for smartphone mindfulness training as an accessible and inexpensive treatment for loneliness and social isolation. However, the authors point out that acceptance is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient for these treatment effects. In Unified Mindfulness terms, it appears that equanimity (acceptance) combines with concentration and sensory clarity to reduce loneliness and social isolation.

LINK TO PNAS ARTICLE: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/9/3488


Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Smyth, J. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(9), 3488–3493.