“Am I the only single person left?”
That’s a question that often strikes unattached people, especially during wedding season. While the bridal showers and bachelor weekends are often fun, watching close pals disappear into relationships can leave many singles feeling left out.
But a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology finds a surprising advantage to feeling excluded: heightened social skills. In the study, Elaine Cheung and Wendi Gardner of Northwestern University found that participants who felt excluded showed higher emotional intelligence than those who were experiencing social acceptance.
The authors define emotional intelligence as the ability to accurately perceive and manage the emotions of oneself and others. To measure this, they asked participants to either relive a time when they were socially excluded or conjure a neutral memory—in this case, the layout of their local grocery store. Afterwards, participants were asked how they would cheer up a sad friend or calm down an angry friend.
Cheung and Gardner found that the people who recalled the socially isolating incident were more committed to helping the distressed friend, offering a greater number and a wider range of strategies for providing solace.
In the second study in the series, participants took on the role of career coaches. Some were asked to recall a time when they felt intense social exclusion, while others were told to relive a time of great social acceptance. They then worked one-on-one with job interview candidates.
Afterwards, the researchers discovered that the excluded coaches did a better job. Their job-candidate clients were more energized and were superior negotiators, offering a greater number of reasons why they should be hired than the other group. They also reported liking their coaches more than the individuals whose coaches had been positively primed.
A third study, in which individuals wrote letters to online ‘pen pals,’ had a similar finding: Those who were feeling excluded were more likable and made more attempts to help than those who were primed for acceptance.
“Even though these participants were not explicitly instructed to attempt to manage other’s emotions, nor given specific information that could be used to manage the other’s emotions, we found that excluded participants wrote letters that contained a greater number of attempts at managing their pen pal’s emotions and that they were seemingly more effective and likable,” the authors wrote.
In a culture that frequently stigmatizes loneliness while equating happiness and popularity with virtue, this study offers an important counterpoint. Difficulties can make us more compassionate and eager to help, while the good times can make us more resistant to others’ pain, or just oblivious.
So if your current social situation has you feeling left out, take heart. Rather than focusing on the people who appear to be abandoning you, consider those who are feeling just as isolated. They could probably use your help.