Oh So Lonely

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Thanks to the convenience of social media, instant messaging apps, dating apps, and mobile phones, you would think we would be more connected now than ever before. But on the contrary, we are now more isolated from each other than ever. Although we are seemingly connected through the internet, it might actually be these virtual interactions which are making the loneliness epidemic worse. In fact, the time one spends on social media is inversely related to how happy they are throughout the day. Loneliness levels in adults have doubled from the 1980s: 40% of adults in recent surveys report being lonely, up from 20% in the 80s.

Why Are We So Lonely?

Today’s society is very different from the way it was in the early 1900s. Social scientists believe that modern technology and housing trends are partly to blame for the loneliness epidemic. More adults are living alone than ever before. Added to that, because of pursuing careers, people are living far from close relatives and friends. Consequently, people’s social networks have gotten smaller and families are not providing the same social support they may have done 50 years ago.

While seemingly connecting the world, technologies like instant messaging, social media, and mobile phones can make it easier to avoid forming substantive connections with others.

A Big Health Risk

Not only is loneliness breaking our hearts, it is literally killing us. A new study by Brigham Young University found that the subjective feeling of loneliness increases the risk of death by 26%. The study also reported that social isolation (lacking social connection), and living alone were even more ravaging to a person’s health than just feeling lonely. They both respectively upped the risk of mortality by 29% and 32%!

If you read that keenly, you realise that people who are alone (even if they don’t report loneliness), have an increased risk of mortality, just like those who have many connections but feel lonely. This means that people who are both objectively isolated and subjectively lonely are at risk.

Researchers say that the health risk posed by loneliness is comparable to that of smoking and worse than that posed by diabetes and obesity. According to psychologist Steve Cole, researchers have always known that lonely people are at greater risk of heart attacks, metastatic cancer and Alzheimer’s among other ills.

Humans Are Social Beings

As the saying goes, no man is an island, entire in itself. Humans just aren’t built to be alone. For early humans, being alone increased the risk of being killed by predators, dying from starvation, and decreased the chances of propagating one’s genes. And so just like other social animals, humans evolved negative biological reactions to being isolated. Because survival depended on cooperation and communication, the human brain and body were shaped by evolution to desire and need social interaction.

A social animal that feels alone and ostracised from its kind is prone to be nervous and starts exhibiting unhealthy physiological responses. Its body increases the production of stress-related hormones and biochemicals which can lead to inflammation, stress-related illnesses, and reduced immunity to infections. This adaptation explains why chronically lonely people have high levels of stress hormones and weakened immune systems, leading to higher risk of premature death.

Hypervigilant To Social Threats

According to a recent study by researchers from the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, loneliness can make people more perceptive and receptive of negative social information. They are hypervigilant to social threats, and unwittingly end up being more defensive and hostile, further alienating them from people around them. In the study, the attention brain areas of the people who didn’t have intimate connections lit up more quickly to words related to social isolation like “foe”, “excluded”, and “detached”. Their brains also reacted less to positive social words than those of their well-connected peers.

In another study, researchers measured the brain activity during sleep of lonely and socially connected people. They found that the lonely were more prone to “micro awakenings”- when one semi-wakes up from time to time, having restless sleep. This suggests that the lonely person’s brain is on alert for threats throughout the night- just as would have been the case for early humans who were separated from their tribe.

Lonely But Not Alone

Being lonely doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. We all know that it is possible to be lonely in a party full of people. Even celebrities, surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans and their entourages, can experience deep loneliness. Actually, they might be more susceptible to loneliness because they are never sure if the people around them are real friends or just in it for good times. History is littered with celebrities who died alone and lonely. If you feel that the people around you don’t really know and care about you and you can’t rely on them, you will feel lonely and isolated.

The bottom line is that what matters is the quality of your social interactions, not the number of people you know. According to John T. Cacioppo, the author of “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” we just need several people in our lives on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return.

The Solutions

Everyone feels lonely from time to time, and that is okay. But if feelings of loneliness become chronic, something needs to change… soon. Here are some ways to do that:

  • From virtual to real: Make an effort to connect with your friends and family away from social media, phone calls, and instant messaging. Organise a girls’ night out, a family Sunday lunch, or a Saturday brunch with your bestie.
  • Have a life: Don’t keep yourself isolated from the world around you. Get fun, interactive hobbies or join societies and clubs which can widen your social circle. Hobbies you might want to check out include running, cycling, hiking, singing in a choir, volunteering at charities, and so on.
  • Change maladaptive thinking: Those who have suffered chronic loneliness are prone to be defensive and on the lookout for threats. Instead of always being on your guard for hostility and rejection, try to have a more positive approach towards the people around you.
  • A little kindness: You might be surprised how a little kindness can help you connect with even strangers. It’s within your power to go out of your way to offer kindness to those around you.
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