Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness

Adults who spend just 20 minutes a day using a smartphone mindfulness training app may feel less lonely and have more social interactions than people who don’t, a small experiment suggests.

While mindfulness training has long been linked to reductions in social isolation, much of this research has focused on longer in-person sessions that continue over several weeks or months. With its focus on brief digital training sessions, the current study suggests that group sessions and the social contact that comes from in-person meetings may not be required for people to benefit from mindfulness interventions, said lead author Emily Lindsay, a psychology researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Smartphone training is accessible and inexpensive,” Lindsay, who did the study while at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said by email.

“The majority of American adults own smartphones, so the smartphone platform provides an opportunity to learn mindfulness meditation for people who might not have resources for longer, in-person mindfulness training programs,” Lindsay added.

Mindfulness-based training programs are designed to help people focus on the present moment and accept any pain or discomfort they may be feeling. This may involve meditation techniques to cultivate awareness of the present moment during ordinary daily activities such as driving or eating, or breathing exercises and practices such as yoga to help encourage body awareness and focus on the present.

In the current study, the goal of mindfulness training was to help participants accept discomfort with social interactions while continuing to engage with other people.

The researchers randomly assigned 153 adults to one of three 14-day smartphone-based interventions developed in collaboration with one of their colleagues, Shinzen Young, based on his Unified Mindfulness system.

For 20 minutes each day, one mindfulness training group received training in monitoring and acceptance skills, a second mindfulness group received training in monitoring skills only, and a third group received no mindfulness content and instead received guidance in common coping techniques.

With each group, researchers also asked participants to complete brief daily homework activities that were designed to last no more than 10 minutes.

For three days before and after these interventions, participants completed periodic assessments throughout the day to measure loneliness and social contact.

Participants who received training in monitoring and acceptance skills saw the greatest benefits: they reduced daily life loneliness by 22 percent and increased social contact by an average of two interactions each day.

The monitoring-only mindfulness group didn’t experience these changes, suggesting that acceptance skills training may be a critical ingredient for the social benefits of mindfulness training programs, researchers conclude in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One limitation of the study is that researchers didn’t specifically test the smartphone mindfulness app in lonely or socially isolated adults; people were stressed, but not necessarily suffering from these other problems.

Researchers also lacked data on whether using the mindfulness app might help users make new friends or interact with strangers as opposed to engaging more with people they already know.

How well mindfulness apps work may depend a lot on the individual user and the quality of the app, noted Na Zhang, a psychology researcher at Arizona State University in Temple who wasn’t involved in the study.

“There are still a lot that we don’t know about what dosage, timing, and sequencing of mindfulness training would be effective for what problems in what kinds of people,” Zhang said by email. “So people who are new to mindfulness training could have used an app and found out that it is not very useful, especially without a teacher, and then think that this is not for them.”

Because smartphones are ubiquitous, it’s also possible they could reach people who need help more easily than other interventions or help enhance treatment patients get in person, Zhang added.

“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, online February 11, 2019.

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