On Monday, I read this headline: “New Study Finds Loneliness Can Be Hazardous To Your Health” and it is yet another example of an online headline that is very misleading and incomplete. It isn’t loneliness that’s hazardous to your health but extreme loneliness that is dangerous. And whose health is it hazardous to? Older people (and maybe that isn’t even true.)
I did some research into what the author of the study, John Cacioppo, really discovered about loneliness and it’s quite fascinating and surprising.
Loneliness evolved as a signal, like hunger or thirst, indicating that something is wrong and one’s social ties should be strengthened. Without it, humans wouldn’t have survived. According to Cacioppo,
1…humans needed to bond to rear their children. In order to flourish, they needed to extend their altruistic and cooperative impulses beyond narrow self-interest and immediate kin. But in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, the only real safety was in numbers.(1)
2. The distress they felt if they drifted toward the outskirts of their group served as a warning to reengage or else perish.(2)
3. There are three core dimensions to feeling lonely-intimate isolation, which comes from not having anyone in your life you feel affirms who you are; relational isolation, which comes from not having face-to-face contacts that are rewarding; and collective isolation, which comes from not feeling that you’re part of a group or collective beyond individual existence,” he said.(1)
How one experiences loneliness varies from person to person. I usually experience the “collective isolation” type of loneliness because I intentionally avoid joining…anything. I agree with Mark Twain who said “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I would add to that “…and go in the opposite direction.” Occasionally feeling any type of lonely-intimate isolation is normal and even necessary at times because it forces you to do something about it. Loneliness is unpleasant for a reason.
What isn’t normal is chronic loneliness and it’s this type of loneliness that can be hazardous to your health. It can
disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, and increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being.
More people are lonelier today because of the changes that have occurred in contemporary society — busier, more hectic lives, more divorces, more single-parent homes, more people remaining single for longer or not marrying at all. Family and friendship ties aren’t as strong anymore and because of this fewer people have someone who they can rely on and confide in.
The internet and technology have exacerbated our feelings of alienation because it promotes and encourages the idea of being constantly connected and if we’re not interacting with others (electronically or not), we feel like we should be. Being “well-connected” establishes your worth. But, online/electronic relationships are not real food. They perpetuate loneliness.
Cacioppo suggests lonely people “(begin by) rediscovering those positive, physiological sensations that come during the simplest moments of human contact (and) that means overcoming the fear and reaching out. Lonely people feel a hunger…(and the) key is to realize that the solution lies not in being fed, but in cooking for and enjoying a meal with others.”(1)
That’s good advice, but I have a different take on loneliness and how to deal with it.
My theory on what causes loneliness and how to deal with it
This is just my opinion: somewhere behind lonely feelings is a “should”. “I should have more friends”. “I shouldn’t be alone on a Friday night.” “I have this fancy schmancy phone on which I spent a lot of dough. It should be making some noise as I stand in line/sit in traffic/sit quietly at the dinner table. If it doesn’t, I may have to think and feel. Oh, no!” I know whenever I say “should” to myself about anything, I’m in trouble and I’m about to suffer. The problem is thinking that being alone is a problem that you have to get out of. Loneliness is not caused by being alone. In the words of William Deresiewicz in his brilliant essay “The End of Solitude”, the cause of loneliness “is not the absence of company, it is the grief over that absence.”
That grief looks like telling yourself that being alone is bad and that things should be different than they are.
My theory is that it is this grief that causes people to get stuck and be chronically lonely. As soon as people stop grieving the absence of company (and start seeing it as an opportunity), their loneliness would disappear.
I also suspect that it is not chronic loneliness itself that causes the health hazards Cacioppo discovered, but the grief over and resistance to loneliness. Resisting anything causes tension and stress and that resistance can manifest itself in physical symptoms like insomnia, high blood pressure, and depression.
When I was in my 20s, I used to feel lonely a lot. I would spend Saturday nights lamenting not having plans or more friends and I would write sad poems and listen to sad music. I thought I should be going to clubs (even though I hate that) and…I can’t remember what else I thought because that mentality and those feelings of loneliness are so foreign and odd to me today. Now I happily spend Saturday nights watching heavily muscled and tattooed men bash each other’s heads in. No more sad poetry. What happened? The number of relationships I have is pretty much the same. I have less relationships, actually. Less acquaintances. The quality of the relationships I do have has remained the same. Why am I less lonely now? What changed?
I changed. I changed my mind. On one of those nights when I was completely alone, I read something D.H. Lawrence wrote in Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
It’s no good trying to get rid of your aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all of your life…Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But, they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.
That “stuck” with me. Whenever I felt lonely after I read Lawrence’s words, I would say to myself “you’ve got to stick to it all of your life” instead of running away from it or thinking things should be different.
I did what Jack Donaghy advises Liz Lemon to do in an episode of 30 Rock:
Jack: Sometimes the way back up is down. Let me tell you a story. It’s 1994. I went ice climbing, and I fell into a crevasse. I hurt my leg, and I couldn’t climb back up. So fighting every natural instinct, doing the thing that seemed most awful to me, I climbed down into the darkness. And that’s how I got out. when I got back to base camp, I went and found my fellow climber, the one who had cut me loose after I fell. And I said, ”Connie Chung, you did the right thing.”
Liz: Thank you.
Jack: Climb down, Lemon. Climb down.
Or put in a lovelier, gentler, less hilarious way, I did what Elizabeth Gilbert did:
When, I get lonely these days, I think ‘so BE lonely, Liz.’ Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience.
It’s amazing how looking at loneliness and writing about it doesn’t make me feel more lonely. Dissecting loneliness prevents it from finding room to grow.
Robert Frost figured out the secret to life when he said: “not against: with.”