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Only the Lonely
The pain of social isolation can be harmful to your overall well-being.
by Claire Sykes
It’s Saturday night and, once again, you’re home alone; your mind drifts to that party where everyone seemed to be having more fun than you. And then there’s all those overtime hours and solo drive-through dinners. It’s enough to make anyone feel downright lonely.
If you often feel lonely, you’re not alone. Roughly 60 million Americans are lonely right now, says John Cacioppo, PhD, a professor at the University of Chicago and author (with William Patrick) of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (Norton, www.scienceofloneliness.com ). Everyone can feel a little isolated sometimes. But when loneliness becomes chronic, interfering with daily life and hindering happiness, Cacioppo says it can “become a risk factor for illness and early death.”
Being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely. “Loneliness is the emotional pain you feel when your need for connection isn’t being met,” Cacioppo says. “What matters is your subjective response to the situation.” It’s normal to feel lonely when your daughter takes off for college, your husband divorces you or your doctor tells you you’ve got cancer. If you live alone and have neither an intimate partner nor a satisfying social network, or if you struggle with money or health problems, you are also more likely to feel lonely. But if you enjoy being by yourself for hours or even weeks on end, that’s not loneliness—that’s solitude.
Humans are built to feel loneliness because we are basically social animals who need to bond and cooperate with others—as couples, families, communities and cultures—in order to thrive. It comes from our prehistoric days, when being alone meant getting eaten by that saber-toothed tiger.
“Our research today with brain scans and physiological markers suggests that loneliness is a biological construct, much like hunger, thirst or physical pain,” says Cacioppo. “It has evolved as a signal to change behavior, to prompt one to build or renew connections, and to promote social trust, cohesiveness and collective action, in order to ensure survival.”
In loneliness, perception is everything. “Some people are more sensitive to the pain of perceived isolation,” says Louise Hawkley, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. People can feel lonely even when they’ve got friends and family around. “There is some indication of a heritable component to loneliness,” notes Hawkley. “An insecure maternal-attachment bond as an infant or a negative event in childhood can trigger loneliness in genetically susceptible individuals.”
Because we’re wired to experience loss of social connection as a threat to our well-being, feeling lonely can also leave us feeling scared. “This may translate as a hypervigilance about others and their perceptions of you,” says Hawkley. “Without necessarily being aware of it, you m...