Loneliness makes it harder for us to connect with others, but there is hope.

‘Loneliness can damage your health and even shorten your life span, chimes the Washington Post. Well that’s just great. Now, not only am I feeling lonely, I am ‘triggering inflammation’ in my body and ‘neurological changes’ in my brain too. As if any of us sit around thinking, ‘I was so enjoying my deep pangs of loneliness, but now that I know it’s bad for me, I’ll just open that box of inner connectedness. I think I left it next to the Wheaties.’

Many articles about loneliness offer helpful advice such as ‘volunteer, see more friends, or join a church group.’ The issue is that many of us already do these things. Our lives can be busy with friends, family, church, and community. Yet we still feel lonely. As Brené Brown put it, ‘I often feel loneliest when I am with other people.’

Social Neuroscientist, John Cacioppo, and his team at University of Chicago have been studying loneliness for decades. According to Cacioppo, one reason we don’t know how to ‘cure’ loneliness is because we confuse loneliness with being socially isolated or with being alone.

We think if we find romantic partners or make more friends we will no longer feel lonely. But research shows the quantity of our social connections is not as important as the quality of them. We crave meaningful connection on three levels: intimate relationships, friends and family, and wider community. If we feel isolated from any one of these levels, we start feeling lonely.

Though loneliness is often a hidden emotion, it is pervasive, partly because our brains are hardwired to make us feel lonely.

All emotions are motivators. Our brains create combinations of neurochemicals that make up emotions. Each neural cocktail motivates us in a different way to survive and thrive. Whereas fear motivates us to protect ourselves (and our loved ones), loneliness motivates us to connect with others.

Loneliness is not a straightforward emotion. While feeling lonely triggers an urge to connect, it also triggers our fear response. For our ancestors, social rebuff could lead to physical danger (attack by a jealous mate, for example). So this heightened sensitivity to possible rejection was essential.

Loneliness in the short-term is an advantageous emotion. In simpler times, pangs of loneliness would urge a caveman to return to the clan and share the hunt instead of continuing to roam. In modern times, however, we spend exceedingly less time in the presence of others. We live alone, work from home, and shop and socialize online. We have fewer opportunities to meaningfully connect and more time to experience isolation.

Prolonged loneliness is self-perpetuating.

The fear response intensifies the longer we feel isolated. During social encounters, we pay more attention to adverse information and we scan conversations for negative feedback. Afterwards, our memories retain any negative input and disregard positive connections.

If this sounds a lot like depression, and that’s because it is. Depression puts a negative filter on our perception about everything. Loneliness puts a negative filter on our perception of our relationships. At the heart of both is a sense of hopelessness. We tend to lose hope that future encounters will be any better.

In our hypervigilance to detect social rejection, we become more self-centered, defensive, and judgmental of others. As a result, we are more anxious, awkward, and stifled, which in turn makes others less inclined to connect with us.

These results may sound bleak but Cacioppo research also found ways to help lonely people break the self-perpetuating loop.

In a five-year project addressing issues of loneliness amongst Army soldiers, Cacioppo provided ‘social fitness training,’ which combined social skills with cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy shows us how our negative biases lead to self-defeating behaviours, such defensiveness. For their treatment, soldiers learned to rebalance their negative social perceptions, such as, ‘I was born shy. I will always be lonely,’ and, ‘Others are just wretched.’

Social skills focused on strengthening the quality of their social interactions. Soldiers were encouraged to do small favors, venture beyond superficial chit-chat to more personal questions, and respond empathically. As a result, soldiers reported reductions in loneliness and improved well-being. One soldier applied at his newfound skills at home. In response his wife remarked, ‘What has the Army done to you? And why haven’t they done it sooner?’

One lesson from Cacioppo’s studies is that all of us are prone to bouts of loneliness. Recently, to raise awareness, The Loneliness Project provided a ‘digital space’ where the public can share their personal stories of isolation. As the site’s banner tells us, ‘Loneliness is human and that’s okay.’

Perhaps the most useful takeaway from Cacioppo’s research is that we have the power to improve the quality of our social connections and to reduce our feelings of loneliness. Becoming mindful of the negative effects that loneliness has on our social perceptions and our communication actually reduces our fear response. And allows us to shift focus from self-preservation to making more meaningful connections.

For many, ‘social fitness training’ might be the answer to reducing loneliness. But communication skills do not ensure we will forge more fulfilling relationships.

Stay tuned for the next article to find out why sometimes our willingness to connect is not reciprocated and what we can do about it.

References

A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. (2011). Masi, C., Chen, H., Hawkley, L., & Cacioppo, J. Personality and Social Psychology Review.

Building social resilience in soldiers: A double dissociative randomized controlled study. (2015). Cacioppo, J., et al. Journal of personality and social psychology.

Loneliness can damage health, triggering inflammation and neurological changes. (2017). Blakemore, E. The Washington Post.

Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. (2008). Cacioppo, J. & Patrick, W. W.W. Norton & Company.

The Loneliness Project. (2018). Marissa Korda.

The Social Muscle. (2017). Cacioppo, J. & Cacioppo, S. Harvard Business Review.