The Science Behind Loneliness - And How To Escape
That all too familiar feeling
Hey, my name is Aniket! What's On Your Mind? is my bi-weekly newsletter that gives you insights into your mental wellbeing - backed by academic research and books authored by experts. This is my first issue in a series focused on social connections 👫
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It's been about a year and a half since the start of COVID-19 and its social distancing rules. Too many struggle as they battle symptoms, financial hardship, and stress and anxiety. But the pandemic has also provided learning lessons like the importance of vaccines, the benefits of remote work, and how we shouldn't freak out over toilet paper supply.
Mental health has attracted attention too. Specifically, since it's been so hard to get together with friends and family, COVID-19 has shown us the importance of social connections and how prevalent loneliness is in our lives.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is a feeling of sadness because someone lacks meaningful social connections. A lonely person doesn't get the interactions they crave from family or friends. It's a state of mind and an entirely subjective experience: if you feel lonely, you are lonely.
No one is immune to the feeling of loneliness. Maybe you've had weekends where you had no one to spend time with. Maybe you moved to a new city and couldn't find anyone you could "click" with. Maybe a close family member passed away, and you felt some sense of emptiness. Whatever the case, we've all gone through periods of loneliness in our lives.
We often think that loneliness and solitude are synonyms when they are very different. The former is an involuntary feeling where we crave valuable connections but have trouble obtaining them. Perhaps we're afraid of reaching out to family members or don't know of any safe spaces to make new friends. And we can still feel lonely surrounded by a crowd or with people we know. Solitude, on the other hand, is entirely voluntary and a positive experience. We all have times where we enjoy being alone, whether it's reading a good book by the fireplace, being "in the zone" during a solo workout, or watching Netflix while devouring an entire tub of Ben & Jerry's without being judged.
Chronic vs. Transient Loneliness
Loneliness can be classified into two buckets based on its duration: transient loneliness versus chronic loneliness. The type of loneliness that we all go through from time to time is transient (or short-term). It can happen with life's common nuisances and is a totally normal feeling. Sometimes we're too sick to work, and we're stuck home alone - we may feel lonely for a while, but our transient loneliness goes away once the workday is over and our loved ones return home.
But transient loneliness can also come when we through significant changes in our lives, such as moving to university, settling into a new job, becoming a parent, after a break-up or divorce, or getting used to social distancing from COVID-19. During these times, we are surrounded by unfamiliarity and may find it difficult to relate to people. When this happens, our brains manufacture a feeling of loneliness and use it as motivation to reconnect with others and to forge new relationships. The late John T. Cacioppo, who co-founded the field of social neuroscience and is known as the Michael Jordan 🐐 of loneliness research, argued that loneliness is an evolutionary trait necessary for the survival of our genes. As hunger is a signal for our bodies to seek energy, loneliness is a signal to seek meaningful social connections. And early homo sapiens developed this signal because social connections were needed to survive against the elements and predators.
While transient loneliness is not harmful, chronic (or long-term) loneliness is, and it happens when transient loneliness stays for a long period of time. The chronically lonely feel that they don't have any close friends that they can deeply connect with. They may feel exhausted when they try to interact with others. And they are generally pessimistic about building social connections. As a result, they adopt behaviours that make it challenging to create a healthy social life: they approach simple interactions with more cynicism and mistrust, have low regard for themselves and others, expect rejection, and more. A study of adolescents has also shown that the lonely are more watchful of negative facial cues of emotion - leading to perceiving positive social encounters as negative ones. For these reasons, chronic loneliness, without intervention, can be a self-reinforcing feedback loop:
While we shouldn't classify loneliness as an epidemic like COVID-19, it's still a serious problem. A whopping 46% of Americans report feeling sometimes or always alone.
Most people believe that we get lonelier as we age - but the truth isn't that simple. In Western societies, loneliness is common among young people. In the UK, about 60% of 18 to 34-year-olds reported an occasional to often sense of loneliness, versus 36% for those aged 65-74 (and 42% for those over 75). And in the US, a study with older adults found that loneliness decreases until age 75 when it severely increases afterwards. Based on this data and the unique needs for belonging and complexities we have as we go through life, your potential for becoming lonely changes as you age:
The reason we should be worried about loneliness is its widespread health effects. It rivals other major mortality risk factors, including alcohol, physical inactivity, obesity, and it has the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has been linked to a 50% increased risk of developing dementia, a 30% increased risk of coronary artery disease or stroke, and an increased risk of depressive symptoms and suicide. Simply put, chronic loneliness reduces your chances of living a healthy, longer life, and those with stronger social connections have a 50% increased likelihood of survival.
Talking about mental health stats can be a bit of a downer, so time for some better vibes 👊
Loneliness does carry some social stigma - no one wants to admit that they lack something as essential as human connection. But the tides are beginning to turn as loneliness slowly emerges into the spotlight - especially as politicians try to discover ways to respond to an increasing ageing global population. In 2018, the UK appointed a Minister of Loneliness, and Japan followed in their footsteps this year. Academic research on loneliness has also been increasing, and we see more charitable campaigns every day. The stigma will soon be history.
If you think you're lonely, know that it's a perfectly okay and reasonable feeling - everyone's been through it. If you feel you're caught in the chronic loneliness trap, try reflecting on your thoughts and actions when trying to connect with others. Remember that chronic loneliness sends your brain into a feedback loop. Often, social interactions aren't harmful at all; your brain may be misreading facial expressions and know that people typically have good intentions. Creating a journaling habit is a good way to start being more introspective. And if you feel like you need more guidance, professional help is a great resource.
Just as importantly, lonely people should also participate in social interactions to build up "interpersonal confidence." Cacioppo encouraged a simple framework to follow that he called EASE:
E, or Extending Yourself, involves taking part in small, simple social interactions. Whether it's small talk in your Uber or saying "I love that book" at the book store, you can get positive feelings from every person. Cacioppo suggests charitable activities (like volunteering at a shelter or helping a kids' sports team) as great places to get comfortable socializing as people are generally more receptive to others.
A, or having an Action Plan, involves finding the right places to invest your social energy. Try to find social outlets that you'll enjoy and have opportunities to form connections. If you love soccer, join a drop-in soccer league. If you love dancing, join a weekly dance class. Be committed to your plans - put it in your calendar and reaffirm to yourself that you'll try socializing. But be careful of overcommitting - doing too many things can make you feel exhausted.
S, or Seeking Collectives, is about choosing the right social connections. In human relationships, quality is always better than quantity. Find people with similar interests, shared values and a shared sense of humour. Don't force friendships when chemistry doesn't exist after a while. Opposites don't attract.
And E, to Expect the Best, is all about positivity. Know that loneliness is a complicated feeling, and it takes long-term optimism to forge relationships. Progress takes time, and you won't create deep, meaningful connections with every person you meet. But so long as you show goodwill and warmth to others, they will likely reciprocate.
That's it for Issue #1! If you found this valuable and want to stay in the loop for more ways to improve your mental health, subscribe!