Half of the 240 study participants were selected to receive brief phone calls from volunteers over the course of a month, and they reported feeling 20% less lonely on average, according to the study
published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Volunteers briefly trained in empathetic communication skills, which involved active listening and asking questions about what their subject was talking about, said lead study author Maninder "Mini" Kahlon, associate professor of population health and executive director of Factor Health at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.
The study participants, all clients of Meals on Wheels Central Texas, led the conversations, which allowed them to define the agenda of the calls.
"Sometimes the agenda is just feeling like they have control," Kahlon said.
They might not have control in other aspects of their lives, but they can control the conversation, she said.
The first week, volunteers called participants five days during the week at times the participants said were best for them. In the subsequent weeks, participants chose whether to receive as few as two calls per week or as many as five.
Conversations were a little over 10 minutes the first week, Kahlon said, but they evened out to 10 minutes during the rest of the month-long study. Participants talked about a variety of subjects including their own daily lives and asked about their volunteers' lives.
Both the participants who received phone calls and the control group who did not had loneliness, anxiety and depression measured on scientific scales at the start and end of the month. Researchers also measured the study subjects' anxiety and depression because those disorders could also be affected by the calls, Kahlon said.
On the three-question UCLA Loneliness Scale
, which ranges from three to nine, phone call participants averaged 6.5 at the beginning and ended with 5.2.
There is no standardized way to interpret how much of a shift is clinically meaningful, Kahlon said, but the participants' numbers dropped a significant amount "so that means we really made a meaningful impact on them," she said.
Anxiety and depression saw an even greater decrease, with an over 30% decrease on the GAD-7 scale and a nearly 24% decrease on the PHQ-8 scale, respectively.
Those results were "even more striking than the loneliness impact because we hadn't necessarily expected that degree of results," Kahlon said.
This study is promising and can help guide how people translate evidence into practice, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who was not involved in the study.
She said she has seen a lot of community-based approaches to decreasing loneliness, but it's rare to find a clinically tested approach.
Holt-Lunstad said she wished the volunteers' emotional levels were measured in addition to the phone call and control group participants because they may have seen positive emotional shifts as well.
"Some research suggests that actually providing support and volunteering can also significantly impact some of these very same outcomes, including loneliness," Holt-Lunstad said.
Putting the findings into practice
It's important to reach out to family and friends in your life who you see might be feeling low, Kahlon said.
"I definitely try to work on my communication with my mom," she said, and she works to prioritize listening to her loved ones and allowing them to run the conversations.
If you're feeling lonely, Kahlon recommended reaching out to someone in your family and friend networks who you trust to talk to them.
It can be difficult because "the reality is, this can only happen if there's someone else who takes an interest in you," she said.
She suggested looking at your network and reaching out to who you believe will be "non-judgmental and truly interested in hearing you out."
Kahlon's goal is to continue testing this program method and applying it on a larger scale so more people can benefit from the findings.