A lot has been written about the downward spiral of loneliness. People who crave more social contact often develop behaviours and thinking styles that only serve to accentuate their isolation, such as turning to drink and becoming more sensitive to perceived slights and rejections. Less studied is the question of whether some people have personality traits that give them a buffer against these loneliness-related risks. A new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology finds a promising candidate that appears to fit this description – authenticity, or being true to yourself.
Jennifer Bryan and her colleagues surveyed 537 undergrads (average age 22; age range 18 to 60), nearly three quarters of whom were female. The students filled out questionnaires about how lonely they felt; their mood; any unpleasant physical symptoms they’d experienced in the last month; how much alcohol they typically drank on a daily basis and whether they had a drink problem; and finally their authenticity.
To get a sense of what the researchers really mean by “authenticity” let’s look in more detail at that last questionnaire. It consisted of 45-items in four categories: Awareness, which means how much someone is motivated to understand themselves (points are awarded for agreement with statements like “For better or worse I am aware of who I truly am”); Behaviour, which measures how much the person actually acts in accordance with their values and beliefs; Related Orientations, which is about how open and honest the person is in their relationships; and finally, Unbiased Processing, which speaks to how much someone can accurately evaluate themselves without being misled by what other people say or do. The researchers averaged across these subscales to give their participants an overall authenticity score.
The main result is straightforward. Across the whole group of students, feeling more lonely tended to correlate with being feeling more depressed and anxious; having more physical symptoms and more drink problems. Sadly, this is consistent with prior research on the sequelae of loneliness. But here’s the thing: among those students who scored more highly on authenticity, these associations were all reduced. That is, if you felt lonely but you also scored highly on authenticity, then your depression and anxiety tended to be lower, so too your drink problems and physical symptoms.
This is a cross-sectional study – it only involved taking measures at one point in time – so we need to interpret the results with caution (we also don’t know if the same findings would apply to a different demographic group, such as elderly people). But one hopeful interpretation of these results is that being true to yourself provides a kind of protection against the usual negative effects of being lonely.
Why might this be? Bryan and her colleagues posit a couple of explanations: First, perhaps highly authentic people don’t overanalyse their lonely feelings – they don’t see their loneliness as some kind of indictment of their personality, it’s just the way things currently are. Second, authentic people are likely less inclined to try to get out of their lonely situation by hanging out with people they don’t want to be with, or doing stuff they don’t want to do. Yes, this might increase their isolation at first, but it probably helps prevent them from growing more bitter and resorting to counter-productive coping mechanisms like drinking too much.
Of course there’s a lot of speculation here. We need a replication of the finding with a more robust longitudinal research methodology (that follows people’s changing feelings and traits over time), and to test other demographics. What’s exciting though, is that if the effect proves to be real, then it hints at a useful way to help lonely people – simply encourage them to be true to themselves. “Such an intervention would be uniquely beneficial,” the researchers said, “as it would not require effort from others (who need to interact with the lonely individual).”
Bryan, J., Baker, Z., & Tou, R. (2015). Prevent the blue, be true to you: Authenticity buffers the negative impact of loneliness on alcohol-related problems, physical symptoms, and depressive and anxiety symptoms Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315609090
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