Ask any person what the worst feelings in the world are, and chances are that loneliness ranks high on the list. It is an experience that many of us share, and yet, it literally keeps us apart.
Loneliness is not social isolation, but rather emotional isolation. You can feel lonely among a crowd of people. To clarify, it is unwilling emotional isolation. This distinguishes it from solitude, which involves the conscious choice to be alone. Loneliness can cause feelings of stress, emotional burdens, low mood, and decreased ability to concentration or focus. Notable researchers in the field of loneliness psychology include John Cacioppo, Louise Hawkley and Christina Victor.
Sure, most of us experience some sense of loneliness at various points of our lives. These include times of relocation, breakups, loss of a loved one or other major life events. These feelings are transient and subside or are ameliorated within a few months, but what becomes dangerous is when the feeling of loneliness is persistent and chronic. Loneliness is closely related to small social networks, chronic social or work stress and marital status.
Cacioppo, who studies the biological effects of loneliness, notes that our genes play an important role in causing loneliness. He observed that in the loneliest people, the genes involved in activating the immune system were overexpressed. Their immune systems are particularly fixated on opposing bacterial threats. Thus, a person who experiences loneliness is casting all of their energy on fighting bacterial invaders, leaving them vulnerable to viral infections, cancers and other illnesses. It is reported that lonely people suffer from higher mortality, higher rates of cancer, and higher rates of heart disease. Additionally, loneliness can raise blood pressure and decrease quality of sleep.
Cacioppo further suggests that loneliness can be cyclic and subtly transmitted. Lonely people tend to negatively view their social interactions and form impressions much less positively. Being lonely tend to produce an increased reactivity to negative behaviors in other people, which coupled with the lonely person’s already negative impressions of social interactions, may force a person to fall even more into loneliness. Consequently, loneliness can be easily spread among groups of people. Since loneliness can cause people to act less generous and more negative towards each other, someone who experiences loneliness is more likely to interact with his friends more negatively who are then more like to interact with his friends more negatively. Thus, the cycle continues as loneliness grows.
So, if loneliness is so dangerous, how can we get ourselves out of the rut? The first step is to recognize that loneliness is not irreversible. It can be changed. Cacioppo suggests that two ways to treat loneliness are to train people to look at things more positively and to bring people together during good times. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and social cognitive therapy can help people shift their negative thinking patterns.
Of course, the simple and intuitive answer to preventing or overcoming loneliness is to get involved in social activities. Hawkley tells us to not think of loneliness as a state but to see it as a call for social action. While this may be uncomfortable at first and can ignite a host of other social fears, forcing ourselves to reach out to others may be our only hope to living longer, healthier and happier lives.