Loneliness is not a pleasant way to feel; this is obvious. But researchers who study the emotion say that a little bit of loneliness now and then can be a useful thing, if you let it. The feeling, as one researcher told Vox’s Brian Resnick, acts as a little warning bell, an internal signal nudging you to reach out to friends before isolation becomes a problem.
“As long as we then do what we should do — reconnect with people — then loneliness is a good thing,” said Maike Luhmann, who studies loneliness at the University of Cologne. “It signals that we need to do something about our social connections. This is a sign from our psychological systems that there’s something off.” This, by the way, is in keeping with a framework many researchers are now using to better understand human emotions, especially the painful ones. Boredom prompts us to find some more meaningful way to spend our time; anxiety helps us anticipate potential future threats. In the same way that physical pain keeps us away from further bodily harm, psychological pain may serve to protect us from additional psychological harm.
The longer you stay lonely, however, the harder it is to feel connected again. So let loneliness do what it’s supposed to do: When you feel it, realize it’s about time you made plans with a friend. Just maybe don’t strike up a conversation with a reluctant stranger.