UAB expert offers tips on how to combat loneliness and isolation this year

Megan Hays, Ph.D., is offering five tips on how to combat loneliness this year.

Stream Lonliness Megan Hays, Ph.D., is offering five tips on how to combat loneliness this year.Nearly one in four people worldwide reports feeling fairly lonely or very lonely, according to a recent Meta-Gallup survey. Last year, the World Health Organization and many others — including the U.S. surgeon general — highlighted the dangers of loneliness and the negative impact it has on both physical and mental health. As 2024 begins, one expert from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation is offering their top tips on how to combat loneliness this year.  

Social isolation is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death, and the health risks have been compared to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Fortunately, there is evidence that proves having social support — whether from friends, a partner or family — is strongly associated with better mental and physical health. 

Assume people like you

“Studies have demonstrated that most people tend to underestimate how much other people like them. The disparity between how much someone believes that another person likes them and the other person’s actual opinion of them is called the liking gap,” said Megan Hays, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UAB. “Research suggests that, when people go into interactions believing they will be liked, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

When people go into conversations assuming they will not be liked or that they will be rejected, they often become closed off and withdrawn and end up rejecting other people themselves. However, if people expect acceptance, research shows their behavior is more friendly, open and warm.

Focus on quality time

While technology often keeps us connected virtually, it can also hinder connection in our in-person interactions. One in three U.S. adults reports that they are online “almost constantly.” It is estimated that Americans spend approximately six hours a day online.

“We are all familiar with the scenario in which you go out to dinner with someone, and instead of enjoying each other’s company, you both find yourselves distracted by your phones,” Hays said. “This behavior creates distance and acts as a barrier to what would otherwise be an opportunity for genuine connection.”

While technology offers many benefits, including providing opportunities to stay in touch with friends and family, offering other routes for social participation for those with disabilities, and creating opportunities to find community, it also comes with some harms, including displacing in-person engagement, monopolizing one’s attention, reducing the quality of interactions and diminishing one’s self-esteem.

“Wherever you are, and however you are, be present in the moment,” Hays said. “Look people in the eyes, listen to them, and be mindful. Choose not to be distracted by your phone or other technologies when you are spending time with other people, and you will be amazed by the improvement in the quality of your relationships.”

Keep showing up

The “mere exposure effect” refers to the psychological phenomenon in which people prefer things they are familiar with. It means the more an individual is exposed to a person, the more they tend to like them and vice versa. In other words, familiarity breeds attraction.

“I recommend creating scheduled opportunities to see people on a regular basis to breed liking through familiarity,” Hays said. “You can try picking activities you already enjoy as a starting point, such as participating in sports, fitness, music, religious, professional or community service groups.”

While joining a new social group may feel uncomfortable at first, Hays reassures people that the most important thing they can do is keep showing up.

“Over time, you will get more comfortable, you will probably like the people in the group more and they will like you more too,” Hays said. “That said, familiarity only goes so far. It won’t make you like people with whom you have had repeated negative interactions, and excessive exposure can eventually diminish liking.”

Be intentional

“One of the greatest misconceptions about friendship in adulthood is that it should happen organically, but making friends in adulthood is quite different from how it was as kids,” Hays said. “The truth is that friendships almost always happen very gradually as a result of regular time spent together and continued effort.”

Hays recommends prioritizing social connections this year by scheduling at least one social hour per week or every other week. Invite a new co-worker to lunch, or set up a play date with a fellow mom from school. Another strategy is to reconnect with old friends for a coffee date, happy hour or a simple phone call.

“Research suggests that old friends often enjoy and appreciate being reached out to more than we think,” Hays said.

Be yourself

Authenticity involves being vulnerable and sharing parts of oneself with others. And while being authentic is more easily said than done, Hays says it is an essential part of developing meaningful connections with others.

“When you do not show up as your authentic self in your relationships, vulnerabilities and all, then loneliness and insecurity are sure to follow,” Hays said. “However, when you honestly express your thoughts, feelings and needs, you create trust and closeness with others.”

Research has demonstrated that self-disclosure is a pivotal aspect of connecting with people and gaining their trust.

“When you disclose a little, it opens up the door for the other person to share, and this reciprocal interaction paves the road to genuine connection,” Hays said.