If you often feel lonely, you’re likely to ponder how you might increase your social opportunities. Join a club? Sign up for a class? Volunteer with a youth sports league? All worthy ideas—but there’s something else you probably wouldn’t think about to fix your loneliness: Get more sleep. But that’s exactly what new research suggests you should do.


How could a lack of sleep make you lonely? It’s all about how you behave when you’re sleepy…and how others perceive you. It’s been known for a while that people tend to withdraw from others when they’re sleepy. So psychologists at University of California at Berkeley decided to investigate whether lack of sleep could actually lead to loneliness.

The first part of their study involved 18 healthy adults and took place in a lab. After one full night of sleep and after one night of not sleeping, participants were given two “social distancing” tests…

Test #1: Participants were asked to say “stop” when another person walking toward them reached the point that felt uncomfortably close.

Test #2: Participants were hooked up to MRI machines that scanned the parts of the brain that respond to threat, then they watched a person come closer on a computer screen. Afterward, they answered questions about their moods and feelings while taking the test.

Results: In both the real-life and the computer-generated social-distancing tests, participants preferred significantly more distance from other people after not sleeping. And their brain scans confirmed that threat-sensitive areas of the brain were stimulated by an approaching person after a sleepless night—but not after a night of full sleep.

For the next part of the study, about 100 participants kept journals in which they rated each night’s sleep quality and the degree of loneliness they felt on the following day. Again, there was a clear pattern of more loneliness after nights of poor sleep.

Finally, recorded videos of the first part of the study were “judged” by about 1,000 other participants. Not only were the “judges” able to identify the people who were feeling lonely—but the loneliness was “contagious.” The participants who were watching the videos said that watching videos of lonely people made them feel lonely. In fact, the lonelier the person on the video was, the lonelier the watcher felt. The watchers also said that in social situations, they would be inclined to avoid such lonely-seeming people.

Sleep deprivation is a serious public health problem in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So is loneliness and social isolation. If you’re one of the four out of 10 adults getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, now is a good time to change that. For instance, trade staying up late to watch television for an earlier bedtime—so you can wake up feeling refreshed enough to be sociable and make others want to be sociable with you.

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