Feeling lonely? Try compassion

February 7, 2022

Elliott Friedman

Make someone happy
Make just one, someone happy
And you will be happy too

The classic song “Make Someone Happy,” perhaps most famously sung by Jimmy Durante (anyone who’s seen Sleepless in Seattle knows this one), offers the interesting premise that one route to personal well-being is via the well-being of others. A fascinating new study lends support to this idea.

To begin, there are a lot of people who report feeling lonely, so many in fact that loneliness is fast becoming a public health concern. 1 In 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a new Minister for Loneliness to devise policies to reduce loneliness and its effects on health. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse – reports of loneliness have increased since spring 2020, particularly among young adults. 2 And loneliness can often make people feel less able to form or nurture social connections.

But what if concern for others’ well-being might also ease your own feelings of loneliness? A number of studies show that feelings of compassion for other people and loneliness are inversely correlated – people who feel more compassion report less loneliness. A new study looked at how feelings of compassion change over time. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, collected data on 1,100 men and women living in San Diego County aged 20-100 over a 7 ½ year period. Participants were asked questions about feelings of compassion toward themselves (e.g., “When I’m going through a very hard time, I give myself the caring and tenderness I need”) and toward others (e.g., “I tend to feel compassion for people, even though I do not know them”) along with questions about loneliness, demographic and characteristics, and physical and mental health.

The results showed that men and women with higher levels of compassion that remained high or increased over time reported less loneliness; this was true across all ages of people in the sample. 3

These findings join several studies showing that actions that benefit other people improve your own well-being. One famous study showed, for example, that people given $20 to spend were happier if they gave it to someone else than if they spent it on themselves. 4 So the next time you’re feeling lonely, rather than forcing yourself to socialize, it might be easier and just as beneficial to look for opportunities to make someone else happy.

Dr. Elliot Friedman

Friedman is the William and Salley Berner professor of Gerontology in Human Development and Family Studies in the college of Health and Human Sciences His research interests include how psychological experiences affect biological processes related to health with an emphasis on physiological regulation in middle and later life, psychological well-being and health, biopsychosocial integration and successful aging.  Be sure to check back each week for another wellness tip of the week!

1 https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2021/01/feature-the-loneliness-pandemic/

2 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/02/young-adults-teens-loneliness-mental-health-coronavirus-covid-pandemic/

3 Lee, E. E., Govind, T., Ramsey, M., Wu, T. C., Daly, R., Liu, J., ... & Jeste, D. V. (2021). Compassion toward others and self-compassion predict mental and physical well-being: a 5-year longitudinal study of 1090 community-dwelling adults across the lifespan. Translational Psychiatry, 11(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-021-01491-8

4 Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688. 10.1126/science.1150952

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