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Wash the loneliness away with a long, hot bath

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Love taking hot baths? You might be a little lonely, study suggests.

Your shower and bathing preferences may reveal more about you than just your grooming habits. Scientists at Yale University suggest that people who take frequent long, warm showers or baths tend to be lonelier than folks who spend less time bathing and like cooler water.

Researchers suspect that the physical warmth of a shower or bath provides people with a substitute for a lack of social warmth, or coldness, in their lives.

In one study, 51 college students were asked to complete surveys about their lifestyle habits and levels of loneliness. Undergrads who felt more socially excluded said they lingered longer in a shower or bath and preferred warmer water temperatures. (There were three questions about bathing habits: How often do you take a bath? What temperature water do you use? How much time do you spend in the bath? All had scale-like answers, plus other questions about lifestyle habits so participants wouldn't know bathing was the topic of interest to the researchers.)

The effect was sizeable: The degree to which students felt lonely accounted for nearly 25 percent of the variation in their bathing frequency.

(Author's note: Maybe it was just my college dorm shower experiences, but I'm amazed the students had much hot water at all for luxuriating. On a good day, I felt lucky for a lukewarm spray rather a cold trickle. Yale must have Ivy League plumbing.)

Because this first study looked at mostly younger college-age adults, researchers wanted to see if they would find similar results in an older group of people outside the university setting (translation: more private-home bathrooms, fewer sharing the shower). So they repeated the same surveys in 41 men and women ages 19 to 65. Although they didn't observe a link between loneliness and bathing frequency, they did find that lonelier participants favored warmer water temperatures.

The scientists speculate that physical warmth, such as a shower or bath, is a form of self-therapy to restore social warmth when we're feeling isolated. They view loneliness as a form of "social coldness" that can be somewhat relieved by applying physical warmth. 

Of course, we compensate for social coldness by restoring the missing warmth in other ways that don't involve getting wet. As an antidote to loneliness, we may down a shot of whiskey, cradle a cup of coffee, or toss on an old ratty sweatshirt from that U with the rinky-dink plumbing.

Although the researchers found evidence that people don't consciously seek out physical warmth as a stand-in for social warmth, they suggest it's a good replacement for it -- and that it temporarily soothes emotional distress.

"It appears that the 'coldness' of loneliness or rejection can be treated somewhat successfully through the application of physical warmth," write the study authors.

What works for you when you're feeling lonely?