Loneliness is a growing area of concern, attracting attention as a public health concern due to its association with a variety of psychological and physical health problems. However, interventions targeting loneliness are less common than interventions for other mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and existing interventions focus primarily on building social skills and increasing opportunities for social interaction despite research suggesting these techniques are not the most effective. Furthermore, although there is an increasing need for scalable and convenient interventions, digital interventions for loneliness are even less common.
Using a qualitative approach, we explored how adults (18-64 years of age) who express wanting to be more connected to others experience loneliness and react to a digital mental health intervention targeting loneliness.
11 participants were recruited from a pilot randomized controlled trial (RCT) exploring the impact of a digital mental health intervention, Happify Health, on loneliness among adults aged 18 to 64 who indicated wanting to feel more connected to others when signing up for the platform. Participants were invited to participate in a 3-day asynchronous focus group about their experiences with loneliness, with Happify Health, and with social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic; 11 participants completed the focus group in May 2020.
Participants’ responses were coded using thematic analysis, which led to identifying 5 themes, each with separate subthemes, that could be applied across the 3-day focus group: loneliness, relationships, social distancing, skill acquisition, and coping. Overall, we observed variability across participants in terms of the source of their loneliness, their perceptions of their social connections, and their motivation to reduce feelings of loneliness; however, participants commonly referred to negative self-perceptions as a cause or consequence of loneliness. Participants also varied in the extent to which they felt social distancing increased or decreased feelings of loneliness. In regards to the intervention, participants showed evidence of adopting skills they used to address their loneliness, particularly mindfulness and gratitude, and then using these skills to shift towards more active coping strategies following the intervention, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The heterogeneity in participants’ experiences with loneliness described during this focus group emphasizes the subjective and complex nature of loneliness. This highlights the importance of developing loneliness interventions that employ a variety of strategies, including both direct and indirect strategies for reducing loneliness. However, based on our data, a key component to loneliness interventions is incorporating strategies for addressing underlying negative self-perceptions that stem from, but also contribute to, loneliness. The current data also provide preliminary evidence that digital platforms may be an effective tool for disseminating loneliness interventions while providing the added benefit of offering a productive distraction when feeling lonely.