By: Peter Corrigan March 9th, 2019
When was the last time you felt lonely? Not the last time you were physically alone, but the last time you felt like you were walking truly alone in your life. It’s a tough question to answer. You might not have felt that way in a long time so it’s hard to remember, or you might not want to think about it because it’s painful. Whatever your reason may be, loneliness is a hard topic to cover because it affects every one of us differently. Today, we are more connected and intertwined than ever before, but almost a third of Americans report they frequently feel lonely. Thus, the condition of loneliness is beginning to enter the national conversation across all age ranges. Being lonely is both an objective and subjective experience, so professional studies and personal accounts are both imperative to finding strategies to fight it.
What Is Loneliness?
The dictionary defines loneliness as “sadness because one has no friends or company” and “the quality of being unfrequented and remote”. In these two definitions, loneliness reveals its dual components: the physical and the emotional. To be lonely is to be separated from the social interactions you want or used to have in your life. It can happen anywhere at any time, and it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age. In 2015, the United States Surgeon General came out and said happiness is one of the obvious factors that contributes to a fulfilling life, but that one of the not-so-obvious factors that squashes happiness is social isolation. Normally, this type of isolation is thought of in regards to old age. A typical example would be a grandfather who’s wife has passed away and lives alone in his home. While this is certainly valid example, the experience touches all ages. In Great Britain, BBC Radio launched the world’s largest survey on loneliness, titled “The Loneliness Experiment”. Over 55,000 people responded to the survey, which asked deep questions about the individual’s social connections, work, and personal life. One of the surprising findings was that loneliness seemed to have a powerful effect young people, specifically those between the ages of 16-24. A common response to the survey was “I'm surrounded by people - but I feel so lonely”. Like the great comedian, Robin Williams, said, ““I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”
How Does Loneliness Affect Us?
John Cacioppo is the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and has been studying loneliness since the 90s. Through his studies, he’s discovered loneliness affects us not just on a psychological level, but on a biological level as well. For example loneliness increases vascular resistance, which moves blood to the muscles and heart. That’s helpful when there’s a specific threat in the environment, but lonely individuals exhibit this over the course of a normal day. As you age, that translates into higher blood pressure. Loneliness also increases base-line levels of cortisol, a powerful stress hormone, and continuous increases in cortisol can lead to organ decay. Finally, his studies show that loneliness puts your brain into self-preservation mode. From brain-imaging studies, they showed the visual cortex becomes more active while the area [in the brain] responsible for empathy becomes less active. In short, loneliness is an insidious paradox. You can be starved for connection, but you’re cognitive capacity to create that connection will be decaying. Based on these findings and our biological reaction to it, it would appear that we really are social animals and that being lonely is no different than being thirsty or hungry. People aren’t dying of loneliness. But they are dying of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, accidents, suicide and diabetes. And loneliness can make these conditions strike much earlier than they otherwise would have.
Why Do More People Feel Lonely?
The best explanation science and sociologists can offer is that we aren’t as closely bound. We no longer live in the same village for generations, which means we don’t have the same generational connections. That releases social constraints—relationships are formed and replaced more easily today. We have Tinder, Match, eHarmony and all these kinds of places you can dial up and find friendships, connections and opportunities that didn’t exist. In the last 15 years or so, many of those face-to-face connections have been replaced with social networking. Cacioppo found that if you use social networking as a way to promote face-to-face conversation, it lowers loneliness. But if you use it as a replacement for the face-to-face, it increases loneliness. Some of us get competitive when we compare ourselves with our peers; others get trapped in 12-hour work days or scatter across the country from people we know. The hustle and bustle of life make it difficult for us all to remain connected to the people we care about, especially if geography isn’t on our side. Yet, the evidence clearly shows that social connection is what we all desperately need — that sense of deep and powerful intimacy, whether with a romantic partner, family member or a good friend. Why do more people feel lonely? Ultimately, the discipline to maintain close friendships and consistently seek out social networks is just that...a discipline. It is a lesson to be learned and a habit to be cultivated. We owe it to others and ourselves to teach this lesson and instill the discipline within. Connection is one of our primary drivers; we do ourselves a disservice to not give it the focus it so desperately deserves.