Psychologists are regularly berated for spending their workdays reaching blindingly obvious conclusions about the world, a criticism that is not entirely unwarranted. But when I tell you that loneliness is more than just a bad feeling, it is in fact more dangerous for our health than obesity and as deadly as smoking, you might be surprised. Feeling starved of connection can spark changes to the immune system meaning that lonely people tend to get ill more, die earlier, do less well on intellectual tests, and they quite literally feel colder too. It becomes less “I am going to die alone” and more “I am going to die IF I am alone”. With loneliness affecting approximately 1 in 4 people these days, are the physical and emotional challenges that loneliness in our society presents reaching epidemic proportions?
Human beings are truly social animals and we have an inbuilt drive to connect. A fundamental need for inclusion and close relationships. When this need is met we function well. Emotional distress and discomfort, in the form of loneliness, is felt when these needs go unmet. We may begin to feel sad, isolated, and detached. When we feel this way we are likely to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that we are unlikeable, unlovable, worthless even. We all of course have different thresholds for the levels of connectedness that we require to stay and feel healthy.
Despite the negative effects of loneliness, it can hardly be considered abnormal. Most of us would agree that loneliness is a very common and normal feeling. We have all felt lonely at some time in our lives.
The new spin on loneliness is that we can perhaps view it in a positive light, as a warning bell that we need to reconnect. This is a biological alarm system, built over millennia, alerting us to the potential dangers of continued disconnection and isolation. Loneliness motivates us to repair or replace connections that we feel are threatened or lost. Loneliness takes care of our emotional wellbeing, which is essential to our survival and prosperity. We have many such inbuilt survival systems which we choose to listen to, or not. Boredom warns us that we perhaps need more meaning in our life, anxiety warns us of potential threats and helps us to prepare for such dangers. The same can be said for physical pain, which prompts us to make an appointment with our doctor to address whatever is causing it.
One of the biggest misunderstandings of loneliness however, relates to what it is. Many of us equate it with being alone. Thus when the alarm system sounds we try to solve the problem in a way that does not solve the problem at all. Simply surrounding ourselves with others does not mean that you are going to feel connected, and being alone does not mean that you are going to feel lonely. There is a difference between being alone and feeling alone.
What can you do to escape the grips of loneliness? According to Psychologist John Cacioppo we should try EASE (ing) our way into healthy connections with others.
E: “Extend yourself,” but extend yourself safely. Start small and do a little bit at a time. Begin with the idea of trying to get small doses of the positive sensations that come from positive social interactions.
A: “have an Action plan.” Recognize that it’s hard for you. Most people do not need to like you, and many people will not. Practice accepting this. This is not a judgment of you, other people are contending with their own psychology and challenges too.
S: “Seek collectives.” People like similar others, people who have similar interests, activities, values. That makes it easier to find a synergy. Start by asking people about themselves, get them talking about their interests. Find a club that interests you or a volunteer agency that does something you would like to know more about.
E:“Expect” the best. The reason for that is to try to counteract this hyper-vigilance for social threat which has likely developed over the journey of your loneliness.