It goes without saying, this pandemic has been hard on us all.
Not being able to be with the people you love is tough and it’s not uncommon to feel a little lonely, especially for those of us who are living on our own. In fact, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, loneliness reached record levels at the start of this winter. But have you ever wondered why the winter months often feel so lonely?
I have to say, something about this lockdown has felt much lonelier than the others. Personally, I’ve been living apart from my significant other for the duration of this pandemic, and it has been challenging to say the least. But something about the cold winter months just makes being without loved ones that much harder. And since we have to stay at home, it often feels like there isn’t anything you can do about it.
So, being the ever-practical person that I am, I’ve been searching for remedies. Also, being a psychology student, I was curious to understand the connection between the psychological state of loneliness and our physiological sensation of temperature. And I found a few tips that might help you feel better as we battle through what promises to be the last lockdown here in the UK:
Put the kettle on and make yourself a nice, warm cup of tea. Or coffee. Or a hot chocolate if you’re feeling a little indulgent.
Snuggle up on the sofa and bury yourself in layers upon layers of warm blankets.
Or, how about a nice, hot bath?
Seriously. Give it a go.
You see, temperature plays a bigger role in our social lives than you might think.
A recent study shows that even the first impressions we make when we first meet somebody could be affected by something as simple as holding a hot cup of coffee or holding an iced coffee. Studies have even found that after touching something warm we’re much more cooperative in a game involving cooperation and betrayal and, when made to choose between a reward to keep or gift to a friend, we’re more likely to give a present to a friend rather than keep it for ourselves.
There seems to be a deep connection between physical warmth and interpersonal warmth, and that’s something that we can use to our advantage during these times of social distancing and isolation.
Physical warmth may, to an extent, even act as a substitute for social warmth, as suggested by the findings of a recent study. They found that on colder days the participants reported feeling a greater desire for social connection than on warmer days. But, on those cold days, those who’d been given a heated back wrap reported less desire for social connection than those who’d been given an unheated one. In other words, touching something warm reduced their desire for social connection.
This link between social and physical warmth is something we’ve always known about, at least subconsciously. We certainly have plenty of examples in our language and commonly used phrases. For example, when someone is unfriendly you might say that they are a ‘cold’ person. Love is often described as a warm, fuzzy feeling. When you move into a new place you might throw a housewarming party to befriend your neighbours and break the ice.
We can see this in our behaviour too. When it gets cold, we tend to feel a little lonelier, and we tend to remedy this with warmth without even realising. One study found that lonelier people tend to take longer and more frequents baths and showers. Likewise, another study found that people who live further from the equator, where it’s colder, have higher levels of social integration.
So, what’s the theory behind this and why does it work?
One theory psychologists have proposed is that this is actually an energy-saving function. According to the theory of social thermoregulation, it takes a lot of energy for us to maintain the perfect core body temperature, and so by huddling up together we can share heat with each other and save energy. Like how penguins huddle together during a snowstorm!
Newborn babies actually can’t regulate their body temperature properly because they have tiny bodies but a relatively large surface area of skin through which heat can be easily lost. And so, from the very beginning we rely on our caregiver’s touch for warmth and affection. As well as keeping warm, skin-to-skin contact is also very important for bonding between the caregiver and the baby. It therefore plays an important role in the development of a baby’s first relationship, and, according to attachment theory, the kind of relationship a baby has with its caregiver acts as a model for all future relationships.
From a young age, warmth is deeply associated with forming social relationships. The effect this has as we continue to grow is best illustrated by a study of kindergarten children and sharing. After assessing the attachment styles of the children with their friends, the researchers found that those with a secure attachment (i.e. those who were confident in their relationships) were more likely to share stickers with their best friend in warm conditions than in cold. Whereas the temperature had no effect on children who had an insecure attachment with their friends (i.e. those who were anxious or ambivalent in their relationships) and they were overall less likely to share.
The link between physical warmth and intimacy is an important part of our early development and stays with us throughout our lives, playing a key role in our social wellbeing. So, if you don’t have someone with you to warm you up, here is your excuse to take a nice hot bath and do a bit of self-care. Sure, it may not be a complete replacement for having someone physically there with you, but maybe the next time you call friends or family, a warm cup of tea might make it feel like you’re a little closer to the ones you love. A nice hot beverage in your hands can cheer you up like a warm hug.