The Research on Loneliness
Have you ever been all alone at a party? Are you perfectly content sitting home reading a book or watching Hulu? Even though you secretly hate sitting at home watching Hulu? Do you have a need to fill the hole in your heart with anybody, or any substance and to take away the feeling created by that empty place? Even if that body or substance is not good for you? Lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Are you one of them?
Loneliness is a complex mental phenomenon that has at its base a powerful emotion, the building of which begins in childhood, and is a survival mechanism linked to Bowlby’s attachment theory. Research completed by Robert S. Weiss (1973) defines loneliness as a social, as well as, an emotional phenomenon. All of us have experienced some degree of it, if only for a short time, and remember the painful feeling that goes along with it.
Whenever we are reminded of this feeling or anticipate it, we get a twinge of distress that can be linked with a feeling of abandonment we perhaps experienced in our youth. This is what we experience as loneliness, but it is so much more. This feeling can occur at a party, in the classroom or even after making love. It can be pretty confusing and can pull you into a downward spiral, if you don’t know what’s going on.
Research on loneliness is relatively new. John Bowlby did a lot of loneliness research when working on his attachment theory in the 1970s. Robert S. Weiss distinguished between social loneliness, (people who are considered introverts could be socially lonely) and emotional loneliness (people who are emotionally lonely may not have had a firm and reliable care-giving figure early in their childhood development).
People who are socially lonely have certain personality traits that inhibit the formation of social relationships. These traits might take the form of an individual more self-focused or unable to pay a lot of attention to their partner. For women, these traits present as lonely ladies who do not disclose their intimate feelings to their female friends, and for men, these traits present as less participation in group activities like softball or even playing chess with a friend. Personality research has shown that depression, shyness, and low self-esteem are linked to loneliness.
Another approach to loneliness is the perception that loneliness is not good. Being lonely is less satisfying than other feelings, like joy. It is perceived as never ending or a permanent state of being. You should not be lonely, no matter what. It is also perceived that there is an ideal social relationship and a not so ideal social interaction. The not so ideal social interactions create loneliness.
There is research that suggests loneliness is hereditary. According to research by John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist and a top loneliness expert, loneliness is strongly connected to genetics.
Nonetheless, whether social, emotional or perceived, loneliness can be measured. The most frequently used assessment is the 1996 UCLA Loneliness Scale created by Daniel W. Russell. Research based on those individuals taking this assessment is quite interesting.
Lonely feelings are more prevalent in adolescents and young adults (16-25) and very old individuals (80 plus years of age). As a parent, I look back on my son’s constant retort, “I’m bored.” After reading this research, I wonder if he could possibly have been unable to articulate that he was lonely. Of course, numerous 80-year-old respondents were in retirement or assisted-living communities when participating in this research. And many of these oldest adults didn’t have the level of social interaction they had when they were young. Doesn’t it make you want to go bring Grandma home for Thanksgiving dinner?
Overall, women report slightly greater feelings of loneliness than men. I wasn’t surprised by that finding. As researchers drill down into the demographics, they discovered non-married men are lonelier than non-married women. Marriage is well known as protection against loneliness, which is greater in those that are divorced or never married. African Americans of both genders tend to be lonelier than Caucasians. Yet, African American women are less lonely than Latina or Caucasian women. Based on a university study, it was found that college-aged Asian students were more lonely than their peers. Following along the lines of educational success, it was determined that the attainment of a high school diploma protects the population against loneliness, possibly indicating the enhancing benefit of the higher social status and self-esteem associated with this accomplishment. Employment is another factor illuminating loneliness. Retirement and unemployment represent a loss of social contact, so both groups experience feelings of loneliness greater than those that are still employed. Participation in a religious organization has also been identified as yet another protection against loneliness.
Let’s get back to Grandma in the nursing home. Negative health factors increase with a higher level of loneliness. Sensory impairment, such as hearing loss, significantly contributes as well, because it impairs an individual’s ability to participate in conversations. Impaired mobility (walking) is also a contributor to loneliness, limiting the access and the desire to venture out to seek social interaction. Once loneliness takes a foothold in the individual, it makes a mountain out of a molehill. Those who are lonely react more intensely to negative situations, and they experience fewer uplifting feelings from positive events. Even if there is success by a loved one or a friend in delivering nurturing support, a lonely 85-year-old woman may perceive any exchange as less fulfilling. Using fMRI scans of a lonely person’s brain show they derive less pleasure from pleasing social interactions. Not only do the lonely contribute to their own negativity, others view them as negative and begin to pull away as a way to avoid negative situations. All of this confirms to the lonely that their interpretation of a negative social interaction is true, that social interactions will be consistently threatening and that changing those interactions is beyond their control.
Loneliness is an added stress to the individual’s life. Perceiving stress as a growth and motivational opportunity is a start. Responding to going out and engaging with business colleagues can be looked at optimistically instead of with pessimism and avoidance. Thinking that anything is better than watching Hulu again tonight is an optimistic view of having an interaction with colleagues. The lonelier someone is, the less successful they are in dealing with stressors. Oftentimes the lonely withdraw and often they quit trying altogether. Not a good reaction to completing a work deadline or when trying to advance in your career.
The lonely have higher systolic blood pressure and a higher body mass index than non-lonely people, which affects their heart health. Older lonely people have more differences in the hormonal production of the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the adrenal glands than people their own age who are not lonely. This can negatively affect their autoimmune system. Research has shown that people with loneliness experience non-restorative sleep (sleep that is non-refreshing despite an 8-hour normal sleep time). The risk of Alzheimer’s disease is twice more likely to appear in a lonely person than in non-lonely individuals. Living with loneliness can increase the likeliness of an early death by 45%.
So, what can a lonely person do, not to mention a friend or family member of a lonely person? More will be revealed in my next post.
Research gathered for this blog post came from Loneliness, a paper written by John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley, from the Chicago Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, at the University of Chicago. This research was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Templeton Foundation. John Cacioppo is also the co-author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. Further reference material was drawn from Robert S Weiss’s book Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation, published in 1973 at MIT Press, in Cambridge MA, and the 1996 UCLA Loneliness Scale created by Daniel W Russell. The You Tube TED talk with John Cacioppo, is accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0hxl03JoA0.