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Feeling Lonely is More Than a Feeling

Human beings have evolved to belong and feel safest in groups. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that a lack of connection generates a fear/threat response. As a result, the pandemic puts us in something of a pickle. Because this is a highly infectious disease, the very thing society must do to slow the spread – social distancing – weakens the immune system we need to fight the virus.

According to a January 2020 survey of 10,000 Americans ages 18 and over conducted by Cigna, 61 percent of adults — three in five — reported they are lonely. That number is up seven percentage points from 2018. With Americans more physically isolated now because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, the sense of loneliness is even greater.

The late Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied the effects of loneliness for two decades before his death in 2018. After suffering a near-fatal car crash and having what seemed to be a transformative revelation, he concluded that the absence of social connection triggers the same, primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain.

The ache of loneliness drives us to seek out social connection just as hunger pangs urge us to eat. Simply stated: social connections are essential for human survival.

Cacioppo’s book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection examines what is happening in the brains of lonely people, at the endocrinological level, at the genetic level and how that impacts immunity and resistance to disease and overall health.

Studies are now showing that a lonely brain is structurally and biochemically different. The neural response to positive events and images get suppressed, so the world is perceived through a negative filter. When we are lonely, we are more likely to see things as hopeless. We may feel that the world around us is threatening or beyond our control. This makes it difficult to summon up the energy and courage to find happiness and change.

Cacioppo argued that we are defined by social connections, so the absence of them has a significant impact on brain function. Because we are emotional beings, it doesn’t matter whether we actually have these connections, what is important is whether we feel like we have them.

Many feel shame about loneliness because it implies a social deficit. But everyone experiences loneliness at some point. Cacioppo delineated it into three categories:

· intimate loneliness (when you miss someone you love);

· loneliness for quality friendships;

· collective loneliness (when you lose a sense of belonging to a group or tribe).

“Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species…avoiding loneliness is not just about ‘getting,’ not about being a recipient. That is not how we are designed. We need to give and receive to feel connected. This one of the reasons why when we do something for others, we tend to feel good. If you go cook at a soup kitchen, all of a sudden you start finding out that people can actually be pretty nice, they're responding with gratitude." - John Cacioppo

Loneliness is contagious, heritable, affects one in four people – and increases the chances of early death by more than 20%. If you're feeling lonely, you're not alone. Reach out to someone you trust for help.

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