It seems like a macabre twist of irony: Never before have we been so densely networked, so “connected” as we are today. Yet, never before have we been living in a degree of isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. Never before have so many been so lonely. The decrease in quality social connections has been dramatic over the past 25 years.
And loneliness today is not just a personal ache, an emptiness of the being. It is now a public health crisis. Across the modern world, an entire class of professional carers is talking about a loneliness pandemic.
The news gets worse. It is not just that loneliness makes you miserable: The blunt truth – inescapable now that it is backed by reams of research -- is that loneliness can kill you. Loneliness is now ranked as high a factor for mortality as smoking. And the latest meta-analysis has determined that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity. Extreme loneliness, the overview found, increases a person’s chances of early death by almost 15 percent.
This dangerous impact of loneliness on health is explained by the dramatic consequences it wreaks upon the body. A partial list of the ailments thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness include depression, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neuro-degenerative diseases, and even cancer - tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
All this happens because loneliness wrenches a slew of bodily systems out of whack. It sends misleading hormonal signals; elevates blood pressure; seriously compromises the immune system; re-jiggers the molecules on genes (that govern behavior). That is why loneliness also has effects on our thoughts and actions. Roughly 60% of people diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or another mood disorder admit to being lonely.
One of the chief – and surprising – ways in which loneliness wreaks its damage is by undermining the body’s quintessential restorative process: sleep. Loneliness makes sleep less efficient, less salubrious. Lonely people are more quickly disturbed in sleep, have more micro-awakenings, and wake up to higher daytime fatigue. These negative effects on the body’s chief repair and maintenance process accrues over the decades. Close to 50% of people with a sleep disorder suffer from loneliness.
But why should loneliness have such a deleterious effect on our health? Evolutionary theory, which seems to have an explanation for everything, has an answer to that question, too. Natural selection evidently favors people who need people. Humans are vastly more social than most other mammals, and to develop what scientists call our social brain, we had to be good at cooperating. To ward off attacks from marauders in the wild, who were bigger, stronger and swifter than we were, we had to band together and bond. Evolutionarily, being isolated was very dangerous. And so we are hard-wired to find life unpleasant outside the safety of trusted friends and family. Faced with loneliness, our brain snaps into self-preservation mode. There is an increase in levels of morning cortisol, a powerful stress hormone, the consequence of the brain’s preparation for yet another day full of unknowns.
Researchers theorize that loneliness may depress the immune system by increasing psychological stress and decreasing the amount of sleep that you get.
How to break free
Loneliness serves as a crucial signal that your relationships are not as emotionally close, supportive or engaging as you would want them to be. So it offers you a chance to identify this problem and make efforts to fix it. Here are some tried-and-tested routes to escape the trap of loneliness:
Acknowledge the problem. Many people who are lonely are in denial mode. Trying to instinctively hide the truth even from themselves, they resort to numbing the inner void one way or another. They might watch TV, surf the Net, trawl the malls, hang out in pubs – or use drugs as a crutch. Or, they might try to keep busy and superficially engaged in life by immersing themselves in chores and activities. But none of this really works -- not over the long haul.
Instead, choose to stay with the feeling. Acknowledge your loneliness and become aware of its repercussions in your life. Remind yourself that loneliness is part of the human experience that most people share at some time or other. The person who you are right now is in pain, a very human kind of pain. And just as you would feel compassion for someone else struggling with this pain, offer yourself the same kind of compassion.
Try to figure out what’s missing. Yes, “fixing” loneliness is about getting more human contact and connectedness into your life. But what kind of “connectedness”, and how do you go about getting it? The short, and not entirely complete, answer might be “Friends”. A word that has become something of a misnomer these days. Having 3000 “friends” on Facebook is not the answer to loneliness. It’s really not about numbers, it’s about the quality of your relationships. A few high-quality connections -- deep, rich relationships -- that’s what it takes to get out of the grip of loneliness.
Research has identified three types of healthy relationships that you need to have in your life in order to avoid loneliness. They are:
Intimate connectedness, which comes from having someone in your life who you feel affirms who you are - someone whom you trust and who trusts you, in whom you can confide and who confides in you.
Relational connectedness, which comes from having face-to-face contacts that are mutually rewarding - simply sharing good times with friends and family; and
Collective connectedness, which comes from feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Typically, this happens by putting yourself at the service of others. Perhaps by volunteering to give your time and energy to serve the less fortunate.
What’s important to remember is that it takes all three kinds of connectedness to keep from feeling lonely. Having one or two kinds may still leave you feeling that something’s missing. I remember a client in therapy telling me that making lots of plans with friends didn’t alleviate her sense of isolation. “What I want,” she said, “is the quiet presence of another person.” She longed to have someone else just hanging around the house with her. The more clearly you see what’s lacking in your own life, the more clearly you’ll see possible solutions.
Be pro-active about connecting with other people (to state the obvious). Show up, make plans, sign up for a class, share things, take a minute to chat, keep your word.
Take the initiative in staying in touch with school and college classmates or former work colleagues.
Take part in family traditions.
Also, look around your own local community for opportunities to connect. There are “friendship” groups sprouting, there are “collectives” being formed by housing colonies. And, even without these structured opportunities, cooperative housing societies are increasingly putting in efforts to organize social activities for their members off and on during the year. If this is not yet happening in your housing society, why not get pro-active and start the ball rolling?
There is also a scattering of support groups for the lonely (some of them gender-specific) that have been started in India by therapists and others to meet this growing need.
Play it safe. Getting into an intimate relationship doesn’t happen just because you want it to. And that can lead many despairingly lonely people to venture into areas that are unsafe. For instance, do not plunge recklessly into online dating.
The need to feel part of a bonded community can also lead lonely people into cults, another option fraught with risk.
Know that you can’t always call the shots. Although we have a surprisingly large influence on how our relationships fare, we can’t dictate whether there’s going to be a relationship in the first place - or not. So, it’s important to realize that not everybody’s going to be a good match. And, to be perfectly content to say, okay this didn’t work out, let me find that person who does share interests with me, and with whom the interactions will be synergistic, where the relationship will be beneficial for us both. Know that there are such people for everyone out there. It’s about matching - not about fitting - and, therefore, it’s not that, “because I’ve selected this person, the relationship has to work out.”
That’s important for a lonely person to realize. It sounds easy and obvious but it’s actually hard. If you’re starving, to be told that not all food is sustaining, that you can’t just reach out and grab any berries or mushrooms in sight, that you have to exercise care in your selections, is really difficult for a badly hungry person to hear. And so too for the lonely person who’s so hungry to connect -- that selection and discretion are critical is easier said than done.
Beware of the surrogates. Internet communication allows only ersatz intimacy. Forming connections with online friends or pets or even God are brave attempts to satisfy a compelling need. But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing. The “real thing” being people in the flesh.
Break the cycle of negative thinking. This approach might seem surprising, and its rationale less obvious than the other approaches. But recent research reveals that, over time, a person who’s chronically lonely begins to make certain false assumptions: that people aren’t interested in his company, that he is unworthy of fulfilling connections with others. He becomes primed to expect rejection from others. As a result, he becomes sensitive to what he perceives as hostility, insults or indifference from others, in fact, he virtually stays on the lookout for them. So, for instance, if a work colleague seems more quiet than usual lately, a lonely person is likely to assume that he’s done something to offend his colleague, or that his colleague is intentionally giving him the cold shoulder. And the pain of this perceived rejection is intense for the lonely person. So, in order to protect himself from further pain, he distances himself from the other person. This, of course, leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy because his withdrawal does in fact put roadblocks in the relationship. Which leads to more loneliness...
If you find yourself trapped in this kind of maladaptive thinking, and therefore unable to sustain meaningful relationships, counseling therapy does have interventions that can re-train your thinking so that you break the self-defeating cycle that created your loneliness in the first place.
Battling loneliness requires serious effort, courage and a leap of faith. Perhaps, what’s most momentous about the new biology of loneliness is that it offers concrete proof, obtained through the best scientific approaches, that the poets and philosophers and movie-makers who, for centuries, have deplored the ravages of lonesomeness on both body and soul, were right all along. As W. H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.”
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, works as a counseling therapist)