Science seems to confirm what many of us perhaps feel instinctively – loneliness can kill us. A number of studies have been done over the years proving its negative effects.
A study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in March 2015, revealed that loneliness increases the risk of dying. The researchers found that subjective feelings of loneliness and the objective state of being socially isolated both increased risk of death.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is an essential human feeling that rises and falls throughout our lives. Loneliness hurts – brain studies have revealed that social pain and actual physical pain lights up the same areas in the brain.
John Cacioppo, Ph.D., who directs the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago says:
Loneliness has a lot in common with pain, hunger, and thirst. You would not want to be in these states, at least not for very long, but each has evolved as an aversive biological signal that motivates us to do something that’s good for us as individuals and as a species. Physical pain motivates us to take care of our physical body. Loneliness motivates us to take care of our social body, and in doing so, it fosters caring about others and being willing to work to stay together. We’re a fundamentally social species, and a social animal that is isolated is almost certain to live a shorter, more miserable life.
The difference between loneliness and being alone
“Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone” – Paul Tillich
People tend to assume that when people are on their own, they are lonely. This is not true. You can choose to be alone and feel blissful solitude rather than loneliness. Feelings of loneliness may also strike at unexpected times. You could be in a room full of people and suddenly feel disconnected from those around you. You could lie in bed at night next to your partner and feel intense loneliness because you are physically close but light years away from one another in every other way. It is when people perceive those around them as threats rather than a source of compassion and help, that they feel most lonely.
Causes of loneliness
Loneliness seems to have reached proportions where researchers are regarding it as an epidemic as significant as obesity or diabetes. Numbers of adults reporting loneliness have doubled since the 1980s and there are a multitude of causes for this.
- Genetic disposition
Research has also shown that individuals with a certain gene have been found to be more social and respond more to social cues than others. Does this mean that if we do not have that gene, we will inevitably face a life of loneliness? No, it doesn’t, as nurture is still extremely important. Even those genetically predisposed to loneliness are less likely to express it if they are surrounded by good support systems and healthy social networks.
- Emotional disposition
Introverts enjoy being alone more than extroverts but they too need meaningful connections in their lives.
- Social grouping
Immigrants, the disabled, the elderly and those in low-income families are more likely to experience loneliness.
- One-person households
The number of people who live alone has increased slowly but surely over the decades.
Social scientists are studying the effect of technology and urbanization on loneliness. It appears that technology can be both a cause of loneliness and a solution for it. It may be easier to have meaningless, virtual relationships instead of working on building and maintaining real relationships. Facebook interactions may be used as a substitute for real life interaction. If you live alone, that may be better than nothing, but it is not the same. However, technology can also be a source of social connection that helps to keep loneliness at bay. For those living apart from family and friends, it may be an important lifeline.
- Divorce or death of a spouse
Divorce, particularly after years of being married, or death of a long-time spouse, inevitably leads to a period of loneliness. People in these situations are not used to being on their own. They are so accustomed to being part of a couple that it takes them time to adjust to being single.
- Age and health issues
Poor physical health, frailty and mobility issues can contribute a great deal to loneliness. Mental health is another factor with anxiety, depression and fear of rejection causing increasing isolation. Sometimes those who were socially active when they were younger, find themselves more isolated in latter years. Maike Luhmann, a psychologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, has found that loneliness may be worse in old age but young people suffer too. She saw in a study of 16,000 Germans that “Around 30, there’s elevated levels of loneliness, and then again at age 50.” The reason for this requires further study.
The effects of loneliness on physical health
John Cacioppo has been tracking the effects of loneliness. His studies reveal that loneliness definitely has a negative effect on health:
- Lonely individuals feel they are more stressed, even when they are exposed to exactly the same stress as people who aren’t lonely and even when they are relaxing.
- They have raised levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. The heart muscle has to work harder.
- Loneliness makes them more prone to depression.
- Loneliness disrupts sleep and they tend to wake up more at night. They spend less time in bed sleeping than those are aren’t lonely.
The effects of loneliness on psychological health
Dr. Guy Winch, Ph.D. makes a great case for emotional hygiene. He brings out the fact that studies have shown that loneliness poses as significant a risk for long term health and longevity as cigarette smoking. However, it does not come with a health warning like the one found on a cigarette pack. He believes that loneliness can cause deep psychological wounds that distort your perception. It has a way of making you believe that those around you don’t care enough about you. You are afraid to reach out because you fear setting yourself up for rejection when you are already hurting.
Dr. Winch says that we need to pay attention to our emotional pain. We spend more time taking care of our teeth than our minds. He suggests that just as we practice physical hygiene, we need to practice mental hygiene. This means that we should not ignore the emotional pain that we feel. We should not just adjust to our losses by getting used to them. This is the case even when the loss is a normal one – such as when our children leave home. When we ignore psychological pain it becomes much worse and it can impact our lives in many negative ways. He brings out the fact that people are still told to shake off their depression but we wouldn’t dream of telling someone with a broken leg to just walk it off.
Loneliness has to be battled on many levels. It starts at the family level and as family members, we need to watch out for signs of loneliness in our immediate circle and try to help. Practical support can help a great deal if loneliness is caused due to disability, lack of mobility or ill health. For example, offer to drive an elderly relative to a favorite event when she can no longer drive herself.
Social awareness of the negative health consequences of loneliness can help people to realize its seriousness and prevent them from making decisions that might precipitate it. An example would be retiring away from family and friends, moving to another country or choosing to stay in a large, empty house.
Everyone feels lonely sometimes—when you move to a new place, break up with a boyfriend or lose a loved one. However, chronic loneliness is a more difficult issue and is not that simple to deal with. Chronic loneliness is an interaction between your make-up and what life circumstances you have to deal with. Once it is triggered, your thinking becomes defensive and every social interaction becomes difficult. Offering people suffering chronic loneliness the opportunity to meet with others and socially engage often breaks down because of their defensive thinking. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of loneliness. Being aware of their problem is often the first step towards breaking the cycle.
Providing social support is not much of an answer as it often makes the person feel pathetic and does not change their mindset in any way. Teaching social skills is usually redundant – lonely people often have normal social skills but they don’t use them. The reason for this is that when something goes wrong, their brains put them into self-preservation mode. Social cognition is the type of therapy thought to work best. It involves paying attention to how people are perceived and works on this.
Simple ways to deal with loneliness
Dan Buettner is a scientist who studies longevity. He has identified communities that have better health and live longer. What these communities have in common was their sense of family and community. The number and quality of social interactions relate to the quality and length of lives and within these communities quality interactions on a daily basis are woven into the fabric of society.
Having people to turn to for support helps to buffer against depression, hardship, loss.
- Make sure you connect regularly with friends and family.
- Spend time with others, even if it’s going on a walk with a neighbor or going out to coffee with a friend. Regular outings for exercise, visiting friends, doing shopping, or going to the library can help.
- Make new friends if possible. Try a new hobby, join a club, learn a new skill. Try looking online, at your local library or community center for events in your area that might be interesting to you. If your circle of friends has shrunk, it is important to make new connections.
- Volunteering and giving back to your community is a great way to strengthen social ties and meet people.
- A support group is helpful in times of change. If you are coping with loss or divorce, relating to others who are going through similar changes can be very helpful.
- Think about getting a pet.
- Speak to a GP or a counselor.
The upshot of all the research is that we appear to be built for social contact and that those who are lonely experience life threatening health problems, both physically and mentally. All of us experience loneliness at some stage of our lives as it is part of the human condition. However, when it becomes chronic, it is much harder to deal with. This is why it is important to cultivate friendships and value them. Quality of interaction seems to be the key, not quantity, in keeping us healthy and helping us to live longer.