Feeling Lonely? A Warm Bath Could Help, According to Science

published Feb 10, 2020
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Credit: Minette Hand

Have you ever noticed that when the temperature outside starts to plummet, meeting up with a friend or two for a drink seems that little bit more enticing? Well, we have, and apparently, we’re not the only ones. The idea that feeling cold makes us feel more lonely while warmer temperatures make us feel more connected with other people is not exactly a new one either.

The famous “hot cup of coffee” experiment from 2008 showed that holding something physically warm made us emotionally “warmer,” too. A study from 2013 built on this idea by showing that lonely people took more warm baths. However, these experiments were not replicable scientifically, and the idea that temperature can be linked to the emotional state went a bit cold for a while. 

A new study, conducted by researchers at Florida State University and the State University of New York, appears to have solved issues with previous temperature/emotion studies, reigniting the thought that there’s a link between temperature and emotional state. 

To explore the relationship between temperature and loneliness, researchers Adam Fay and Jon Marner recruited a study group of 78 university students located in Florida and New York. The participants were told that they were taking part in a study to test out back wraps. Unbeknownst to the participants, some wraps were set to give off mild heat while others were turned off. 

The researchers asked students various questions about how the wraps felt. But they also inquired about the students’ plans to call home or to catch up with their friends during the next week. In a key break with previous similar experiments, the researchers also recorded the ambient temperatures during the study periods.

By noting how the participating students’ responses varied based on whether it was a hot or cold day, and if their heat pads were turned on or off, the researchers were able to assess the effect the temperature had on the students’ desire to connect with others. 

The results of the study showed that, when their heated back pads were switched off, colder weather meant that participants were a lot more likely to tell researchers they planned to do something social in the next few days. 

The researchers also noted that this effect could be changed just by turning on people’s heated back pads. Participants whose back pads were switched on were no more likely to say they were planning on meeting friends regardless of what the daily temperature was like.

Describing the findings of the study, researcher Adam Fay said that, “On colder (but not warmer) days, exposure to a tactile warmth manipulation eliminated heightened desires for social affiliation. Findings suggest that seemingly subtle changes in temperature can have important implications for the psychology of social affiliation, and such findings apply to real-world contexts outside the laboratory.” 

In essence, cold days can make you feel especially lonely, but receiving heat from something—in this case, a back pad can help. So next time you feel a little bit lonely on a cold winter’s day and don’t have anyone to call on, try pouring a hot coffee, wrapping yourself in a heated blanket, or taking a warm bath—it might just do the trick.