"About one in five Americans is lonely,
a gnawing emotional state
that is a patchwork of feeling unhappy,
stressed out, friendless and hostile."
-National Institute on Aging
For the past three decades John T. Cacioppo has studied human isolation and connection. In his recent book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, coauthored with William Patrick, he arrives at a startling conclusion:
"Humans are inherently unselfish,
or at least they need to be for their health
and the perpetuation of their genes."
According to Cacioppo, we survive and prosper only because we are socially connected to each other. He contends the proof to this theory relies upon the existence of loneliness.
What is loneliness?
Psychosocial rehabilitation specialist Kendra Cherry says,
"While common definitions of loneliness
describe it as a state of solitude or being alone,
loneliness is actually a state of mind."
(Kendra Cherry, "Loneliness," About.com Guide, 2012)
Of course, we know loneliness can cause feelings of being empty and unwanted. People who feel unwanted crave human contact, but something in their state of mind makes it difficult for them to form connections. Psychologists believe loneliness is not necessarily about "being alone" in a physical sense. Instead, it is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters most. Perception refers to a person's mental organization and interpretation of sensory information
For example, think of how a college freshman or a soldier deployed to a foreign country feels lonely. Although both are surrounded by peers and other people, they may enter a lonely state of mind. Cacioppo believes the perception of loneliness is strongly connected to genetics and some other variables that may affect loneliness are physical isolation, moving to a new location, low self esteem, divorce, death of a loved one, or depression.
So, what do lonely people do?
* They tend to be more hostile.
* They tend to eat food with higher contents of sugar and fat.
* They have greater resistance to blood flow in their veins.
* They produce more cortisol, a stress-related hormone that also helps regulate the conversion of carbohydrates to energy.
* As they become older,
(a) They develop impaired immunity.
(b) They get less restful sleep.
A Little Loneliness Can Be Good
Cacioppo believes the increased production of cortisol is part of the evolutionary story of loneliness.
"Much like the threat of physical pain, loneliness protects your social body. It lets you know when social connections start to fray, and causes the brain to go on alert for social threats," claims Cacioppo. ("Loneliness 'Can Kill You', Scientists Say," Health, March 5 2012)
A primitive man who was alone was in constant fear of predators, which caused stress. Being socially connected was a means of survival for him and his genes. Loneliness is the signal that the wells of empathy and care around us are in danger of going dry.
Cacioppo had previously found evidence that suggests loneliness is partly inherited. He explains that there is sort of a "genetic thermostat" of loneliness that measures differently in different people. "You're not inheriting loneliness; you're inheriting how painful it feels to be alone," Cacioppo says.
Loneliness doesn't just make people feel unhappy; it actually makes them feel unsafe. Cacioppo surmises that the distress people feel is their body sending warning signals when people feel they are drifting away from the their group.
Too Much Loneliness Can Be Bad
Burt Uchino, a professor who led a research study at the Universities of Utah and North Carolina, found: "People who have no social life are fifty per cent more likely to die early than those who are well connected." The research showed that people with little social support have a mortality rate as high as alcoholics, while the impact of making friends is comparable to the effect of giving up smoking. These researchers analysed data from 148 studies over three decades and involving more than 300,000 people. ("Being Lonely 'Can Kill You', Research Shows," The Telegraph, September 14 2010)
The Need For Further "Loneliness" Understanding
John Cacioppo believes we still are in need of serious scientific research on the determinants of interpersonal attraction and satisfying, long-term relationships. As I read his articles, I found myself better understanding some concepts about loneliness and social contact that are very close to me. I often wonder how life seems to have gotten "more lonely in the crowd," and I wonder what the future holds in a society that devalues actual human contact. I felt I had to use some long quotes from Cacioppo today to help us all consider "all the lonely people."
"Through most of human history, life consisted of a set of reciprocal obligations to parents, to children, to other relatives, to the honor of the family and perhaps the village. During the 20th century, the importance of social bonds has been given little more weight than the importance of clean air and water.
"The decline of stable communities, along with the mechanization of life and death had introduced a sense of alienation. The traditional means of pair-bonding, guided in large part by family and societal considerations, gave way to the influences of juvenile fantasies and outward appearances.
"Walter Lippman warned us a century ago that "we have changed our environment more quickly than we have changed ourselves.'
"A. E. Houseman described a new kind of person, 'alone and afraid, in a world I never made.'"
Cacioppo continues to extol the need for study concerning interpersonal attraction and satisfying, long-term relationships.
"What is the evidence that such a science is needed? The divorce rate remains around 50%, and the conditions of social isolation are growing at an alarming rate. In 1990, 21 percent of U.S. households with children under 18 were headed by a single parent; by 2000, the proportion of single parent households had grown to 29 percent. There are now more than 27 million Americans living alone.
"According to the middle projections by the U.S. Census Bureau (1996), the number of people living alone will grow to almost 29 million by 2010 - more than a 30% increase since 1980. General Social Survey respondents in 2004 were three times more likely than respondents in 1985 to report having no one with whom to discuss important matters. The modal respondent reported three confidants in 1985, and no confidants in 2004.
"Although we like to think of ourselves as mythic individualists, we are fundamentally social organisms. We are born to the most prolonged period of abject dependency of any mammal. For the species to survive, human infants must instantly engage their parents in protective behavior, and the parents must care enough about their offspring to nurture and protect them.
"Even once grown we are not particularly splendid physical specimens. Other animals can run faster, see and smell better, and fight more effectively than we can. Our major evolutionary advantage is our brain and ability to communicate, remember, plan, and work together. Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not our individual might. Our very health and well being depend on our ability to form and maintain satisfying social connections with one another."
(John Cacioppo, Ph.D., "It's Time For a Science of Social Connection,"
Connections in Psychology Today, July 16 2010)
"If we can improve the compatibility
and health of couples,
children will be raised
in more nurturing
and stable families,
which in turn
will produce better schools,
cities, and societies."
-Neil Clark Warren