I’m into loneliness. Well, to clarify, I recently read two books that prompted my interest in learning more about loneliness and its effects on our evolving society. The first book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” was written by social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. Loneliness, as defined by the authors, is the perception that you are socially isolated rather than the actual frequency of contact with other people. Drawing from years of investigative studies and evolutionary psychological theory, Dr. Cacioppo presents the idea that avoidance of chronic loneliness is an instinctual “drive”-much like the avoidance of hunger and thirst. As human beings our strong sense of self-preservation dictates that we seek out a comfortable amount of food, shelter and safety. We may be more successful at maintaining those basic needs if we are not alone. The trick is in the ability to forge bonds with others, make friends, and belong to a community. But due to the fact that significant genetic contributions to loneliness exist, some of us naturally possess this ability and some of us do not.
However, Dr. Cacioppo has not written a self-help book on how to “make friends and influence people” rather he offers the results of his research in an understandable form and provides a new way of thinking about loneliness. In my mind, one of the most important findings was that chronic loneliness can have negative effects on both an individual’s psychological and physiological state. Social isolation has an impact on health that is comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, lack of exercising, obesity, and smoking. Loneliness shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune response, and cardiovascular function where, over time, these physiological changes can accelerate the aging process.
Among other instruments used to measure a person’s level of loneliness, researchers employ the UCLA Loneliness Scale. If you would like to take the test yourself click on the link below: http://psychcentral.com/quizzes/loneliness.htm
In what appears to be the opposite of avoiding social isolation is Eric Klinenberg’s book entitled, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone”. Klinenberg’s initial interest stemmed from research he did for an earlier book in which he wrote about 700 people dying during the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. He discovered that many of those people died alone in their homes from the disaster because they were living alone.
Klinenberg decided his next project would further investigate the rising phenomenon of 32.7 million Americans living alone more closely. Conducting over 300 interviews, he expected these “singletons” to be report loneliness and depression. What he found was that there is a distinction between living alone and being alone or isolated. Interestingly, people who live alone tend to spend more time socializing with friends and neighbors than people who are married. Klinenberg goes on to describe factors he believes are driving this trend, as well as the downside of living alone. He states, for example, that men do not ask for help or assistance as often as women do and of the 700 who died alone during the Chicago heat wave most were men.
So, what did I learn from these seemingly different takes on aloneness? First, chronic loneliness (again the perception of being socially isolated) can make you physically sick. However, even if you were not fortunate to have been endowed with socially outgoing genes and a nurturing family, all is not lost. Human beings have the ability to learn new ways to adapt their behaviors and find a comfortable niche in a social group. But you have to be willing to work on making those behavioral changes. Secondly, choosing to live alone is trending as a big societal change. Now, I will no longer feel pangs of sadness when I see people eating by themselves at restaurants because maybe they really WANT to be alone. Finally, with so many choosing to live alone (especially the elderly), we should try and look out for each other. Check in with your neighbors and say hello to that shy, quiet person at work or school. You may make their day and improve their health.