Are we happier alone or with others when we feel socially anxious?

Jan 14, 2022

Are those of us experiencing social anxiety happier alone?

It would be easy to assume that someone experiencing social anxiety is happier alone than with other people. After all, feeling socially anxious means fearing social situations and, to avoid potential rejection, criticism and ridicule, we tend to avoid social interactions. This belief can fuel our desire to hide ourselves away and avoid socialising, thinking we’ll feel better if we are by ourselves... but do we? 

Well, does it surprise you to learn that this isn’t true? A recent research study found that people who experience social anxiety are happier with others than they are when they’re alone. Perhaps you intuitively knew that anyway? After all, as human beings we’re wired for connection and every one of us has a longing for closeness with others –it’s a basic human need. Previous studies have even suggested that our need for belongingness is likely to be stronger when we experience social anxiety.

Now, we’re not saying that this means you’re not going to feel a sense of anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions when in social situations, but we do want you to know that it is entirely possible to feel a mix of positive and negative emotions at the same time in any given situation –and we do. This means that feeling anxious or worrying about socialising does not stop you from experiencing positive emotions during social interactions; in fact, people who experience social anxiety can and do experience good feelings during social interactions and even enjoy socialising, despite any anxious feelings they might also have. 

Interestingly, the results of the study also found that people experiencing social anxiety feel similar levels of negative emotions both during social interactions and in time alone. Which means that, if reducing those uncomfortable feelings is the goal, avoiding social interactions might be a misguided coping strategy that unhelpfully limits the positive emotions that we could be feeling, rather than preventing us from experiencing negative emotions.

People who experience social anxiety tend to spend less time with close friends. Yet, spending time with close friends and partners has been proven to increase the positive emotions that we feel -and positive emotions can actually make us more resilient and better able to cope in difficult situations. 

How positive emotions can help you

We often hear spiritual teachers describe our job in life being ‘to feel good’ and suggest that feeling good can attract goodness into our lives. A while back, I would have fallen into the camp that says “yes… when things get better then I will feel good” but there’s actually an evidence-based reason why we should seek out positive emotions in our daily lives -something that has been widely researched in the area of positive psychology. Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions offers us a fascinating insight into the benefits of cultivating good feelings in our everyday lives.

We know that negative emotions tend to generate an urge to respond in a particular way (like running away or freezing up), which is obviously narrowing the choice of thoughts and actions a person can see they have available. I’m sure you, too, have been in situations where your brain can only focus on finding an escape and you can see no other options. Yet, experiencing positive emotions can create the opposite effect, broadening your thought-action repertoire; expanding your awareness of the thoughts and actions you have available to choose from, which offers you more flexibility in how you could behave in challenging moments, and more awareness of new opportunities you could embrace and how you might do that.

We’re not talking about just in the exact moment when you’re feeling good. Experiencing positive emotions builds enduring personal resources that contribute to your wellbeing and provides reserves that can be drawn upon in more challenging times in the long-term. This means being better able to cope with difficulties and being more resilient and flexible. Plus, you’ll be likely to experience even more good feelings in the future!

What does all of this mean for you?

It turns out that positive emotions are a component in effective functioning as a human being. So where does that leave those of us who experience social anxiety and therefore avoid the good things in life out of fear that something bad will happen?

When we’re making avoiding uncomfortable emotions our priority, we’re limiting the experiences that can generate positive emotions within us. We miss out on moments of laughter, joy, connection, belonging, contentment, awe, love and excitement in life (and so much more!) because of the choices we make, so we end up feeling positive emotions less often. And for what? Living in this way means we often end up experiencing negative emotions anyway –just without the positive!

But what if we sought out the feel-good in life? Even everyday fleeting experiences of mild positive emotions can broaden your mind and have the potential to shift habitual ways of thinking and behaving, triggering an upwards spiral of wellbeing. Studies have even found that the upward spiral of positive emotions can counteract the downward spiral of depression. In fact, it’s now very clear that positive emotion is a vital part of creating your happiness and wellbeing –not just an outcome of good experiences.

And so that lays my own “I will feel good when things improve” argument to rest doesn’t it! We have to seek out situations now that will cultivate positive emotions within -even if we feel anxious at the very same time. The more positive emotions we feel, the more resilient and resourceful we become, the more positive emotions we can feel; and so the upwards spiral grows -as do you. 

Of course, there are things that you can do that feel good that don't involve socialising, but so many positive emotions come from interacting with others, just as the study mentioned earlier suggests, it's how we're built. That said, at Quiet Connections we never recommend diving in at the deep end when it comes to socialising! So think about how you can gently stretch your comfort zone, perhaps intentionally creating small moments of one-to-one connection with one or two people to begin with. If you would like some help with this, check out our Socially Anxious to Quietly Confident programme where we walk Quieteers like you through this process at a pace that suits you. 

Join us at our next Quiet Meet Up

If you live in or you’re visiting Cornwall, we would love you to invite you to join us at our Quiet Meet Up's!

Our meet up's are for gently connecting those of us who consider ourselves to be quieter, more introverted, highly sensitive, socially anxious or shy, in a space where it's okay to talk and it's okay to be quiet too.

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