Only the Lonely
The pain of social isolation can be harmful to your overall well-being.
by Claire Sykes
It’s Saturday night and, once again, you’re home alone; your mind drifts to that party where everyone seemed to be having more fun than you. And then there’s all those overtime hours and solo drive-through dinners. It’s enough to make anyone feel downright lonely.
If you often feel lonely, you’re not alone. Roughly 60 million Americans are lonely right now, says John Cacioppo, PhD, a professor at the University of Chicago and author (with William Patrick) of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (Norton, www.scienceofloneliness.com). Everyone can feel a little isolated sometimes. But when loneliness becomes chronic, interfering with daily life and hindering happiness, Cacioppo says it can “become a risk factor for illness and early death.”
Being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely. “Loneliness is the emotional pain you feel when your need for connection isn’t being met,” Cacioppo says. “What matters is your subjective response to the situation.” It’s normal to feel lonely when your daughter takes off for college, your husband divorces you or your doctor tells you you’ve got cancer. If you live alone and have neither an intimate partner nor a satisfying social network, or if you struggle with money or health problems, you are also more likely to feel lonely. But if you enjoy being by yourself for hours or even weeks on end, that’s not loneliness—that’s solitude.
Humans are built to feel loneliness because we are basically social animals who need to bond and cooperate with others—as couples, families, communities and cultures—in order to thrive. It comes from our prehistoric days, when being alone meant getting eaten by that saber-toothed tiger.
“Our research today with brain scans and physiological markers suggests that loneliness is a biological construct, much like hunger, thirst or physical pain,” says Cacioppo. “It has evolved as a signal to change behavior, to prompt one to build or renew connections, and to promote social trust, cohesiveness and collective action, in order to ensure survival.”
In loneliness, perception is everything. “Some people are more sensitive to the pain of perceived isolation,” says Louise Hawkley, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. People can feel lonely even when they’ve got friends and family around. “There is some indication of a heritable component to loneliness,” notes Hawkley. “An insecure maternal-attachment bond as an infant or a negative event in childhood can trigger loneliness in genetically susceptible individuals.”
Because we’re wired to experience loss of social connection as a threat to our well-being, feeling lonely can also leave us feeling scared. “This may translate as a hypervigilance about others and their perceptions of you,” says Hawkley. “Without necessarily being aware of it, you may behave defensively toward others so they’re less inclined to approach you.” Maybe you withdraw, but this only makes things worse. So does trying desperately to connect to people, who may feel put off by your despair.
“Fear-based responses can interfere with the accurate perceptions and social skills needed to effectively connect with others,” says Cacioppo. You may think people don’t like you, or you fail to see your unrealistic expectations of them. Meanwhile, your behavior toward them (aloof, demanding, critical) and their responses to you (yuck, who needs that?) only reinforce your skewed thoughts and blurry view. “A lonely person can get caught in a feedback loop of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Cacioppo says. That’s when loneliness can become chronic, endangering your health.
Cacioppo has found elevated levels of cortisol (one of the body’s “fight-or-flight” chemicals) in lonely people, something that happens when you feel threatened or stressed. Adds Hawkley, “If the adrenal gland can’t properly regulate the secretion of cortisol, which is also involved in keeping cellular inflammation under control, this can compromise your immune system, setting you up for disease.”
One study found higher inflammation marker levels in socially isolated men (American Journal of Cardiology 4/1/06).
Chronic loneliness also constricts blood flow throughout the body. “This isn’t a problem when you’re young,” explains Hawkley, “but for lonely people it can cause more rapid increases in blood pressure over the first several decades of life.” Such pressure increases can increase risk for heart attack and stroke later on. If you’re lonely, you may wake up often in the night, have trouble making decisions and give in to poor health habits. Lonely people are also prone to anxiety, obesity, self-deprecation, depression, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies.
Fortunately, you can overcome loneliness. “Begin by understanding your fears, so you can be more available to others, and then reframing your thoughts, to help break that negative cycle,” says Cacioppo. Build a social network, carefully selecting people whose attitudes, values and interests match yours and who sincerely care about you. Make time to volunteer for others in need, enjoying that “helper’s high.” If none of this helps, seek professional counseling or psychotherapy.
Just as loneliness can take you down, taking the right action can lift you up—into a much more enriching and fulfilling life.