Yes I like Oprah. I admit it. While Ihaven’t watched her daily in years, I did check in on Oprah’s Lifeclass which she held this past fall. I loved the webcasts she did, it was delicious juicy fun. Also pretty enlightening. The webcasts were interactive with the audience, and a recurring theme was loneliness. It took me by surprise how many people, a lot of them just like you and me, who were lonely.
What is loneliness anyway? John Cacioppo, an neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, seperates perceived isolation from objective isolation. Perceived isolation is that feeling of aloneness, even if you are among people. Remember when you first left your 2 year old at home with a babysitter? And she cried and cried for you? She was with a caring adult but still felt alone. My friend Claire told the story of dropping her son off at preschool as he tearfully asked her, “What if I feel lonely?’ She wondered how he could feel lonely among 20 other little kiddos, but it was his own perceived idea of being alone: being without her. Human beings have the longest period of dependency of any mammal. We are dependent on our caregivers for years upon years, both physically and emotionally. Legally defined, we are not adults until age 18. Some parents will likely dispute this age, regardless, we are needy little beings for a large portion of our lives. During this time, we are building social relationships and making neural connections that lay the groundwork for our uniquely social brains. We crave community and togetherness, although the amount may differ from person to person. Cacciopo makes a fascinating argument that loneliness is an actual aversive signal, similar to hunger or pain, that we need connection. Imagine that. That gnawing and nagging feeling of loneliness, which we may not even be consciously aware of, is guiding us toward the gratification of being with others. Thank you, brain.
At the other end of perceived isolation is objective isolation. Objective isolation is when someone chooses to be alone in a physical way. Living alone in the United States is at its highest rate ever at 25% per Cacioppo. In his study of social networks in America, the number of social contacts we have has dropped 50% of the last 20 years. Even more unsettling, the number of confidantes people have is shrinking. In 1985, the average was 3 confidantes. Sounds good, I mean these are very trusted friends. In 2004, however, the single most common response was zero. None. No one to call when you get a raise or to talk about the last episode of “The Office.” That feels sad. People who are objectively isolated are not necessarily lonely. I remember the day I moved into my first apartment, getting ready to start my first job the following week in a new and unfamiliar city. My parents brought me a housewarming present and some groceries and after they left, I felt alone but…exhilerated. Ready to start a new chapter. That was not perceived isolation, I didn’t feel lonely or in need. It was thrilling.
Loneliness is not only a negative signal to your brain, it can be a direct threat to your ability to live a fulfilling, prosperous and thriving life. You begin to engage in hypervigilance when you are lonely. Have you ever walked to your car at night when no one was around? You become super-aware of sounds that may be a threat, you scan the parking lot for movement, your breath becomes rapid, your heart beats faster and you clutch your keys tightly. You are hypervigilant. Loneliness can do this to you as well. It can affect your ability to think clearly, heightens your stress level and can even adversely affect your memory. It can also influence how you act toward others. My mother always used to say that if I said negative things about myself, it would become a SELF FULFILLING PROPHECY. This was consummate mumbo jumbo to a kid but it applies here. If I expect someone to be kind, they are more likely to be kind. If I am lonely and I expect someone to be hostile, they may very well be hostile. In other words, I can repel people just by being lonely and expecting to be lonely. In college I knew a girl named Kristy (not her real name). She would constantly buy people presents and offer to do things like drive them home for Spring Break or take them out to dinner. She name dropped all the people she knew and places she had been. This type of behavior put others off, it was repeling instead of being welcoming and warm as Kristy had intended. In the end, Kristy was one of the loneliest people I knew because she was trying so hard. Under it all, she was scared of being alone and tried to buy and talk her way into friendship. Of course, this is below our level of awareness. It happens almost without us knowing it.
Additionally, loneliness saps our energy and disrupts our sleep. Caccippo explains it like this: Think of being a caveman. You are worried that a bear will come and attack you while you are sleeping so you sleep with a stick next to you in case you are attacked. Yikes! In loneliness, the threats are not bears, but the social world. Fears of interacting and experiencing even more isolation keep some from interacting at all. At other times, their negative interactions as mentioned above can become a reason to just not even try. Lonely people also suffer from this vigilance of the brain which can result in increased cortisol levels and thereby a weakened immune system and a decreased ability to fight inflammation. Have you ever heard the expression, “he died of loneliness?” Well, it may actually be true. Loneliness is associated with early death, high blood pressure and obesity. Loneliness also predicts depression, but fortunately lonely people are not necessarily depressed.
Here’s the good news! (Finally, right?) Most of us are not lonely. Our evolutionary ability to stave off isolation works for the most part. In my part of the world, it can get pretty dark and gloomy during the winter months. I find my gears slowing down and I come to the realization that I haven’t seen my friends in a while. So I call them and make a plan. This is my evolutionary biology telling me that my social networks and feeling connected are the way to a better life. Just like my stomach growling means it’s time for me to eat. In suburbia, that place I call home, loneliness is all around me. It’s a statistical fact. But I know that each of us are doing the best we can with whatever we have at the time. If someone I meet rubs me the wrong way, maybe they are really just lonely. I know what that feels like. Can I find it in me to turn that negative interaction into a positive one? I hope so.