Loneliness is on the rise – even though we’re better able to connect with friends than ever. But why is it such a problem, and does your choice of who to hang out with make a difference?
No one is really adapted to live alone. We are a social species; born depending on our parents, and evolutionarily adapted to living in groups where we can use our bigger-than-average brains to plan and work together. Our brains and biology are adapted to favour communicating with others, which is why even the most dedicated introvert still reads, listens to music or goes on Twitter. But we’re only just starting to understand just how serious the consequences of loneliness can be – at the same time that a connected society is, counterintuitively, making us more isolated than ever. So what’s going on? And how can we fix it?
Alone In A Crowded Place Loneliness tends to be associated with people without many options: the elderly or housebound, or people with few friends or family. But really, it’s a subjective feeling: you might be surrounded by other people – friends, family, colleagues – and yet still feel emotionally or socially disconnected from the people around you. The problem isn’t just literal social isolation, but feeling socially isolated: apart from the groups or tribes that we need to help us survive. This makes sense in evolutionary terms, because in the thousands of years we spent in the wild, a human alone could have expected death from starvation, cold, hungry beasts – or even other groups of (more socially-adapted) humans. A tribe that fell apart or became incapable of acting together became easy prey for more integrated tribes or raiders. Since our biology’s changed relatively little since then, isolation is still a very real problem, because it activates the same physical and psychological stress responses as other types of danger.
When you’re isolated, brain-imaging studies suggest your brain becomes hyper-vigilant for danger
A Physical Toll When you’re feeling isolated, brain-imaging studies suggest, your brain becomes hyper-vigilant for danger, making you more likely to have negative interactions with others and jacking up your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, downregulating other physical systems and making us more prone to everything from obesity to illness. ‘Loneliness is actually a killer,’ life coach Carole Ann Rice tells RISING. ‘Isolation leads to depression and illnesses such as strokes, high blood pressure and heart attacks, which can be caused as a result of deep anxiety. When we are withdrawn from society life seems unlivable and it can lead to suicidal thoughts and self-neglect.’
The Disconnect Of Connections Our increasingly-connected society isn’t as helpful for guarding against isolation as you might expect. In the West, we tend to emphasise autonomy, independence and self-reliance – a willingness to move away from family and friends for work, to live alone and operate as individuals. Loneliness is stigmatised, and not often talked about, even though it’s as important a psychological signal as feeling hunger or pain. ‘People think it's best to not intrude or leave quiet or unassuming people alone,’ says Rice. ‘But being lonely doesn't mean the person hasn't got anything to offer – circumstances may have conspired to create this situation.’
Loneliness can become a negative filter through which we see ourselves and the world
Even if you think you’re immune, loneliness can sneak up on you: an old friend moves away; you split up with a girlfriend and lose a chunk of your social circle; you start working from home and leave the office banter behind – then, one night, you realise you aren’t sleeping properly, because your caveman brain is expecting a sabretooth tiger attack. ‘A difficult aspect of loneliness is that it can become a negative filter through which we see ourselves and the world,’ neuroscientist and author Giovanni Frazzetto tells RISING. ‘Loneliness can dampen our optimism and our ability to cherish the joyful aspects of life, making us concentrate instead on the negative and difficult sides of a situation. When lonely, we may also become more vulnerable to rejection, and less open to joy and pleasurable experiences.’
How To Fix Feeling Alone So what can you do? The first step is just recognising the problem: if you’re feeling lonely, recognise that it’s a warning signal, and that you need to take steps to deal with it. Focus on the quality of a few relationships, rather than quantity. ‘Find your tribe,’ says Rice. ‘If you like gaming, jazz, French movies, odd comedy acts, cooking or creating – try and find a group which shares your passions. Don't be afraid to ask other people about their interests and be a good listener. We like people who are interested in us.’ It also helps to understand that people are likely to respond more positively than you expect.
‘One mistake we make in relation to loneliness is to think that it only affects us and to hide and feel uneasy, perhaps even helpless, about our condition,’ says Frazzetto. ‘In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that people around us are lonely, too. It helps to take small steps toward getting out of it, one at a time. It might help to purposefully seek the social situations that we most enjoy, and take the initiative to include others, without giving up easily if we don’t find the right company at first.’
Pull In Some Of Those Connections Go through your address books and social media contacts and contact a few people you haven’t spoken to in a while – either to ask how they’re doing or suggest meeting up. And approach this positively – the reason they’ve been out of touch is probably more to do with their own life stresses than you. Stay upbeat, and be specific about any plans. But more than anything else, recognise that what you’re feeling is the perfectly natural result of thousands of years of evolution, and fixing it can only do you good. Also, be nice to yourself. ‘Being really lonely and depressed can feel like an illness, like you're in a de-energised zombie state of sadness,’ says Rice. ‘It takes time to emerge from this state. Be gentle and patient.’ You’ll feel better when you do.
WHAT NEXT? For more on the dangers of being a loner, watch the TED talk by John Cacioppo below. Then pick a friend you haven’t spoken to in six months and drop them an email to let them know they’re still on your radar.