All the Lonely People

Is it better to be lonely than to have bad people in your life?

In my last post I wrote about how children and adults will often display a preference for bad attention from others rather than no attention. We know that people will often maintain “toxic” friendships and relationships over no friendships or relationships at all. This is what often happens, but what should we do about it? If I have one bad friend, should I end that friendship so that I have no bad friends and no good friends?

A recent study from Trinity College, Dublin, sought to answer these questions. The authors explored whether psychological distress (stress, anxiety and depression) was more assocaited with the quanitity of social connections than the quality of their connections. The authors found a clear assoication:


People with a high quantity of high quality friends were the least distressed group
People with a low quantity of high quality friends were the second least distressed group
People with a high quantity of low quality friends were the third least distressed group

People with a low quantity of low quality friends were the most distressed group

In fact, this last group scored so poorly on measures of psychological distress that as a group they reached the cut off scores of clinical disorders such as depression. Having close connections really is a psychological need! Severty five years ago, pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow placed the need for belongingness and love just about our need for food, shelter and safety:

Maslow said:

“the needs for safety, belonging, love relations and for respect can be satisfied only by other people… (we) must be, to an extent, “other-directed,” and must be sensitive to other people’s approval, affection and good will”.

The Trinity College study shows that intapersonal connections are important. If you can find them, it is best to have numerous close friends, but this is not always possible. It is important to have some friends, regardless of the quality, otherwise mental illness likely awaits. But having few friends who are of high quality are more important than having a large group of poor friends. Ulitmately, in the war between quanitity and quality, quality wins!

My clinical view: Friendships are precious and necessary. Don’t treat them lightly. Don’t pretend or wish that you don’t have the need for others, that need is natural and is right – it is directing you towards happiness. Always be on the look out for a new quality friend. But also always ask yourself if there are things you could do to make current friendships work better. And if you don’t have a friend, start working on ways to become connected – a psychologist can help break down the barriers.

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