Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?
- How often do you feel lonely?
- Are people lonelier now than 20 years ago?
- Are people more stressed now? Why?
- Look at the images below. Can you relate to any of them? Which ones and why?
Everybody feels lonely from time to time When we have no one to sit next to at lunch When we move to a new city or when nobody has time for us at the weekend. But over the last few decades, this occasional feeling has become chronic for millions. In the UK, 60% of 18 to 34 year old say they often feel lonely. In the US, 46% of the entire population feel lonely regularly. We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet, an unprecedented number of us feel isolated. Being lonely and being alone are not the same thing.
You can be filled by bliss by yourself, and hate every second surrounded by friends. Loneliness is a purely subjective, individual experience. If you feel lonely, you are lonely. A common stereotype is that loneliness only happens to people who don't know how to talk to people, or how to behave around others.
But population-based studies have shown that social skills make practically no difference for adults when it comes to social connections. Loneliness can affect everybody. Money, fame, power, beauty, social skills, a great personality—
nothing can protect you against loneliness, because it's part of your biology.
Loneliness is a bodily function, like hunger. Hunger make you pay attention to your physical needs; loneliness makes you pay attention to your social needs.
Your body cares about your social needs, because millions of years ago, it was a great indicator of how likely you were to survive. Natural selection rewarded our ancestors for collaboration, and for forming connections with each other. Our brains grew and became more and more fine-tuned to recognize what others thought and felt, and to form and sustain social bonds. Being social became part of our biology You were born into groups of 50 to 150 people,
which you usually stayed with for the rest of your life. Getting enough calories, staying safe and warm, or caring for offspring was practically impossible alone.
Being together meant survival, being alone meant death. So it was crucial that you got along with others. For you ancestors, the most dangerous threat to survival was not being eaten by a lion, but not getting the social vibe of your group and being excluded. To avoid that, your body came up with "social pain".
Pain of this kind is is an evolutionary adaptation to rejection. A sort of early warning system to make sure you stop behaviour that would isolate you. Your ancestors who experienced rejection as more painful were more likely to change their behaviour when they got rejected, and thus stayed in the tribe, while those who did not get kicked out and most likely died. That's why rejections hurt, and even more so, why loneliness is so painful. These mechanisms for keeping us connected worked great for most of our history,
until humans began building a new world for themselves The loneliness epidemic we see today really only started in the late Renaissance. Western culture began to focus on the individual. Intellectuals moved away from the collectivism of the Middle Ages, while the young Protestant theology stressed individual responsibility. This trend accelerated during the Industrial Revolution. People left their villages and fields to enter factories. Communities that had existed for hundreds of years began to dissolve, while cities grew. As our world rapidly became modern, this trend sped up more and more.
Today, we move vast distances for new jobs, love, and education, and leave our social net behind. We meet fewer people in person, and we meet them less often than in the past. In the US, the mean number of close friends dropped from 3 in 1985 to 2 in 2011. Most people stumble into chronic loneliness by accident. You reach adulthood and become busy with work, university, romance, kids, and Netflix. There's just not enough time. The most convenient and easy thing to sacrifice is time with friends. Until you wake up one day and you realise that you feel isolated, that you yearn for close relationships. But it's hard to find close relationships as adults, and so, loneliness can become chronic.
While humans feel pretty great about things like iPhones and spaceships, our bodies and minds are fundamentally the same they were 50,000 years ago
We are still biologically fine-tuned to being with each other. large scale studies have shown that the stress that comes from chronic loneliness is among the most unhealthy things we can experience as humans it makes you age quicker it makes cancer deadlier Alzheimer's advances faster your immune systems weaker loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity and as deadly as smoking a pack of ciggarettes a day the most dangerous thing about it is that once it becomes
chronic it can become self-sustaining physical and social pain use common mechanisms in your brain both feel like a threat and so social pain leads to immediate and defensive behaviour when it's inflicted on you when loneliness becomes chronic your brain goes into self-preservation mode it starts to see danger and hostility everywhere but that's not all some studies found that when you're lonely your brain is much more receptive and alert to social signals
while at the same time it gets worse at interpreting them correctly you pay more attention to others but you understand them less the part of your brain that recognises faces get out of tune and becomes more likely to categorise neutral faces as hostile which makes it distrustful of others loneliness make you assume the worst about others intentions towards you because of this perceived hostile world you can become more self-centered to protect yourself
which can make you appear more cold unfriendly and socially awkward than you really are if loneliness has become a strong presence in your life the first thing you can do is to try to recognise vicious cycle you may be trapped in it usually goes something like this an initial feeling of isolation leads to feelings of
tension and sadness which makes you focus your attention selectively on negative interactions with others this makes your thoughts about yourself and others more negative which then changes your behaviour you begin to avoid social interaction which leads to more feelings of isolation this cycle becomes more severe and harder to escape each time loneliness make you sit far away from others in class not answer the phone when friends call decline invitations until the invitations stop each and every one of us has a story about ourselves and if your story becomes that people exclude you others pick up on that and so the outside world can become the way you feel about it this is often a slow creeping process that takes years and can end in depression and a mental state that can prevent connections even if you yearn for them the first thing you can do to escape it is to accept that loneliness is a totally normal feeling and nothing to be ashamed of literally everybody feels lonely at some point in their life its a universal human experience
you can't eliminate or ignore a feeling until
it goes away magically but you can accept that
you feel it and get rid of its cause
you can self examine what you focus your attention on
and check if you are selectively focusing on
was this interaction with a colleague rarely negative
or was it really mutual or even positive
what was the actual content of an interaction?
what did the other person say?
did they say something bad or did you add
extra meaning to their words
maybe another person was not really reacting negatively but
just short on time
then there are your thoughts about the world
are you assuming the worst about others intentions
do you enter a social situation and have
already decided how it will go?
do you assume others don't want you around?
are you trying to avoid being hurt and not risking opening up
and if so can you try to give others
the benefit of the doubt can you just assume that they're not against you can you risk being open and vulnerable again? and lastly your behaviour are you avoiding opportunities to be around others are you looking of oppertunites to decline invitations or are you pushing away others preemptively to protect yourself are you acting as if you are getting attacked are you really looking for new connections or have you become complacent with your situation of course every person in each situation is unique and different and just in introspection alone might not be enough if you feel unable to solve your situation alone by yourself please try to reach out and get professional help its not a sign of weakness but of courage however we look at loneliness as a purely individual
problem that needs solving to create happiness or as a public health crisis
it is something that deserves more attention humans have build a world that is nothing short of amazing and yet not of the shiny things we have made is able to satisfy or substitute our fundamental and biological need for connection
most animals get what they need from their physical surroundings we get what we need from each other and we need to build our artificial human world
based on that (giggling) lets try something together lets reach out to someone today regardless if you feel a little bit lonely or want to make someone else day better maybe write a friend you haven't spoken to in a while call a family member who has become estranged invite a work buddy for a coffee or just go to something you are usually to afraid to go to or too lazy to go to like a DMD even or a sports club everybody is different so you know whats good for you
maybe nothing will come of it and that's okay don't do this with any expectations the goal is just to open up a bit to exercise your connection muscles so that they can grow stronger over time or to help others exercise them
1 What are you addicted to?
2 Should some drugs be legalized? Why?
3 Do you agree that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection?
What’s the story behind these pictures?