Understanding why loneliness exists can help ease it, say scientists

New research that examines the vicious circle of social isolation also points to the evolutionary origins of loneliness, and a way for people to escape it.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A hermit crab walks on coral pieces washed up onto the beach.

If you feel alone, you’re not alone.

Chronic loneliness has become so commonplace that some US public health experts say it is reaching crisis levels. Breaking free from loneliness can be difficult, a study suggests, because the very desperation for human contact that it creates can actually encourage people to focus more on themselves, thus leading to further isolation.

The paper, published Tuesday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, explains how this feedback loop is consistent with a model that could explain the origins of this complex emotion.

But the research also points to ways in which this cycle can be broken, and at the same time reveals the redeeming value of loneliness as an evolutionary adaptation for social animals.

“Loneliness contributes to our humanity,” says John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study. “It makes us not want to live a life alone.”

Even loneliness’s tendency to make people retreat inward and become self-centered may have served an evolutionary purpose, as hunter-gatherers who suddenly found themselves alone in the wild would have benefited from a heightened sense of self-preservation.

This emotion also sustains our species’s sociality, Professor Cacioppo says. It pushes people who find themselves isolated back into the social fold. “That’s its evolutionary power.”

When loneliness served a purpose

Over 11 years, Cacioppo and his colleagues conducted annual physical exams and gathered psychological questionnaires from 229 subjects born between 1935 and 1952. They found that those who reported lacking companionship in a given year were more likely to score higher on a self-centeredness scale the following year. And those who scored higher on self-centeredness one year would report greater feelings of loneliness the following year.

“I think what’s so interesting about the Cacioppo study is that it catches the way in which loneliness is both adaptive and maladaptive and can split in either direction,” says Richard Schwartz, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who, along with his wife, fellow psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, authored the 2009 book, “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century.”

In 2014, Cacioppo, his wife, University of Chicago psychologist Stephanie Cacioppo, and Dutch psychologist Dorret Boomsma posited an evolutionary mechanism for loneliness. Under their model, loneliness – like many of our social emotions – evolved when our ancient ancestors lived in small groups whose members relied on each other for survival. When an individual separated from that group, he or she would have to work harder to stay alive.

Loneliness, under this model, is an expression of that self-preservation instinct. For instance, research led by Stephanie Cacioppo has shown that loneliness is associated with a heightened response to social threats.

“To the extent that loneliness, like pain, triggers us to do something to set it right, it is very adaptive,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But there is this other quality about loneliness that seems to become circular and lead to more and more withdrawal, and that is extremely maladaptive.”

Where do they all come from?

As ancient as the emotion of loneliness may be, it is widely seen as arising from the dislocations of modernity. Indeed, the word “lonely” first appeared in print at the dawn of Europe’s scientific revolution, in William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”

Research has shown that chronic loneliness is rising in the United States, driven by a host of social and cultural changes. The Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal project sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, suggests that more than a quarter of Americans are lonely, a percentage that has increased by three to seven points over the past two decades. In 2015, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy characterized loneliness and social isolation as an “epidemic.”

Schwartz and Dr. Olds place some of the blame on American culture’s enthusiasm for rugged individualism. “People sort of step back, falling in with an old American tradition of kind of admiring self-sufficiency too much,” she says. “And in their stepping back, they start to essentially notice that the rest of the world is going on without them. And sometimes they feel left out and sort of shafted, even though they did it to themselves.”

In Britain, the Campaign to End Loneliness estimates that there are 1.1 million people over the age of 65 who are chronically lonely. “Long working hours and a culture of constant ‘busyness’ means people do not prioritize reaching out to lonely older people,” says Laura Alcock-Ferguson, the campaign’s executive director.

Later this year, her organization plans to launch a major campaign calling for people to commit to acts of kindness for this “Missing Million.”

“It will be challenging – but we believe that loneliness is everyone’s business,” says Ms. Alcock-Ferguson. “Loneliness is not inevitable.”

Previous analysis by Cacioppo and his colleagues suggests that targeting social cognition – that is, retraining the way lonely people think about others – can be more effective at combating loneliness than targeting shyness, building social skills, or increasing opportunities for social contact.

Simply putting lonely people in the same room as other people isn’t terribly effective, says Cacioppo. Even enhancing social support for lonely people has limitations. “It’s about mutuality,” he says. “A person isn’t actually satisfied if they’re just getting.”

The most effective known interventions are ones that shift lonely people’s attention and concern away from themselves and toward mutual welfare.

“The advice I usually give is volunteer for a group that you enjoy being a part of anyway,” says Cacioppo. “Because when you start handing food to others, let’s say on a soup line, all of a sudden you find out others are grateful. There are actually decent, nice people in the world, and the way we find them is we treat them decently.”

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