How Lonely People Can Make Their Life Meaningful

How Lonely People Can Make Their Life Meaningful Lonely people often feel their lives lack purpose and direction. Indeed, research shows that a sense of meaning in life protects against feelings of loneliness.

One way of restoring meaning may involve nostalgizing, according to a recent study by Abeyta and Juhl, published in Emotion.

What is nostalgia?

Do you ever long for the way things used to be? For example, do you miss a world in which there were few things to worry about, life was simple, and one could depend on others? If so, you are familiar with nostalgia—a sentimental longing or affection for the past.

Nostalgia is associated with a number of positive mental health outcomes. For instance, it is associated with increased happiness and subjective well-being. And romantic nostalgia has been linked to greater intimacy, passionate love, and relationship satisfaction.

The research by Juhl and Abeyta investigated whether nostalgia may also increase meaning in life in lonely individuals.

Investigating nostalgia and meaning in life

Study 1

Sample: 210 (148 female) undergraduate students; average age of 20 years old.


  • Trait loneliness: The UCLA Loneliness Questionnaire (e.g., “How often do you feel that you lack companionship?”).
  • State nostalgia: The Nostalgia Inventory. Participants rated how nostalgic they currently felt about various things from their past, like activities, vacations, movies, music, pets, and toys.
  • State meaning in life: The Presence of Meaning in Life scale (e.g., “At the moment I feel I understand my life’s meaning”).

Study 2

Sample: 229 (183 female) undergraduate students; average age of 20 years old.


  • Loneliness: The UCLA Loneliness Questionnaire (see above).
  • Event Reflection Task: Participants were randomly assigned to two conditions—writing about an ordinary or nostalgic autobiographical memory.
  • Meaning in Life: The meaning subscale of the State Functions of Nostalgia scale (e.g., “I feel like my life has purpose”).
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Findings of the two studies

As hypothesized, analysis of data showed that nostalgia promoted meaning in life for lonely individuals.

However, this research did not identify what mechanisms are involved.

For instance, does nostalgia bolster meaning by increasing self-esteem?

Or is it because it helps people make sense of their life story? Since nostalgic memories usually involve socializing, the memories may promote meaning by reminding people of past interactions with friends and family; and encouraging the building of new connections or rebuilding of old social networks.


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A nostalgia intervention to reduce loneliness and meaninglessness

Previous research shows chronic loneliness is associated with negative health outcomes. For example pain, depression, and respiratory infections (e.g., the flu, COVID-19).

There are effective loneliness interventions available, most of which address emotion regulation difficulties (e.g., rumination, catastrophizing) or lack of opportunities to socialize (e.g., due to work reasons or poor health).

But because lonely individuals also tend to feel that their life is meaningless, meaning-centered approaches may be helpful too. As we have seen, nostalgia interventions appear to promote meaning in life for those who feel lonely.

What do nostalgia interventions look like? Here’s a simplified version of one:

Nostalgia refers to sentimental longing/affection for the past. With that definition in mind, recall an item, event, or situation that makes you feel nostalgic. This could be a beloved song, movie, TV show, pet, or childhood toy; the first game or concert you attended; some special event such as a wedding, graduation, or vacation with your boyfriend/girlfriend.

Take all the time you need to really immerse yourself in the nostalgic experience using all five senses.

Next, list a couple of keywords that help capture the experience.

Then, with the help of the keywords, spend a few minutes writing about the nostalgic event and how it made you feel.

If you found this exercise enjoyable, do it several more times over the next few days.

See if the exercise has a positive impact on feelings of loneliness and the sense of meaning in life.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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