Many people identify themselves as social butterflies, while others prefer solitude and are often dubbed the “loners” of society. This is simply the way things work in human society – some people want to be surrounded by others, in the center of the action, while others choose the wallflower route.
Solitude can be a relaxing and self-reflective experience – and very beneficial for people who are constantly bombarded with social interaction and responsibilities. However, there is a darker side to solitude – the point where being alone turns into being lonely – and that’s where the trouble lies…
The Sanctity of Solitude
Human beings are inherently social creatures, a trait that has been cultivated throughout our species for millions of years, dating back to the family and community structures of our primate ancestors. Our success and survival, throughout much of anthropological history, has been dependent on the support and collaborative efforts of others. From early cavemen and hunter-gatherers to colonial empires and globalization, our progress and advancement as a species has been done with others.
Therefore, loneliness is the exception to the rule for our species, and something that psychologically affects us in very unique ways. As mentioned above, solitude can provide time for personal reflection and relaxation, but loneliness can be a toxic state of being that may not have anything to do with how many friends or family members we gather around us. Loneliness is actually dependent on our personal perception of the strength and value of the emotional connections we form with others.
Social isolation is slightly different than loneliness, and is based on the actual volume of interaction that we have with other people. Both loneliness and social isolation can have tangible effects on our overall health and longevity. But first, let’s look at why this problem has risen back to the fore in research and scientific circles.
Lonely in a Crowded (Digital) Room
Loneliness has become a recent fascination for researchers and social anthropologists because of the increasingly digitalized world in which much of the world interacts. Social media platforms and constant connectivity via smartphones and mobile tech gives the illusion of interaction, thanks to messages, posts, shares and likes. However, in reality, much of this digital exposure occurs as a solitary activity, and the sensation of social interaction is actually a falsehood.
Interactions are distinctly different from meaningful connections, but it is becoming harder for people to know the difference, as so much of modern “popularity” is dependent on our carefully manipulated and curated online personas. Recent studies have suggested that more than 50 million people in America alone, roughly 15% of the population, identifies loneliness as their greatest source of unhappiness, despite the fact that since the advent of the Internet and social media, “connectivity” is at an all-time high.
Recent research has shown that the neural patterns of lonely and non-lonely people are actually different when exposed to the same situations. Non-lonely people display more empathy and a wider emotional range (joy and sorrow) than lonely people, who appear less empathetic and have a much narrower range of emotions, tending towards sadness. Furthermore, gene expression in the immune system cells of lonely people tend to cause more inflammation (stress hormones and oxidative stress), than the standard gene expression of people who do not identify themselves as “lonely”.
The Dangers of Loneliness
Diet – Although this seems like a highly personal choice, studies have shown that people who dine alone tend to make unhealthier choices when it comes to the food they eat. This could be due to relying on “comfort food”, which tends to differ from what we eat when with a partner or companion. Less vegetables and a higher volume of takeout and processed foods characterize the diet of a “lonely” person, which can contribute to obesity, a more sedentary lifestyle, and a lower chance of engaging in social activity.
Broken Heart – While this sounds like something from a rom-com, the truth is, loneliness increases the amount of stress hormones in your body and speeds up the rate of oxidative stress in the heart and cardiovascular system. This can lead to coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, heart attacks and strokes at an earlier age than non-lonely people.
Cognitive Disorders – Social interaction, conversation and mental stimulation is important to keep your brain functioning at a top level. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have been found in higher concentrations within populations of people identified as “lonely”. Memory problems in people who self-identify as lonely, despite having social interaction, are actually more severe than in people who live alone, showing that perception is a very powerful variable.
Poor Sleep Habits – Numerous studies have found links between restlessness at night and loneliness. People who are lonely find it harder to fall asleep, and are more likely to toss and turn throughout the night, perhaps due to the elevated stress hormones lonely people tend to have in their systems, preventing them from properly relaxing or winding down.
Death – While loneliness by itself cannot kill you, it can certainly increase the risk factors that can lead to an early grave. For example, people who self-identify as lonely tend to have higher rates of obesity, mental illness, violent and self-harm behaviors, and substance abuse issues. Overall, people who are lonely are 25% more likely to die prematurely, from something besides natural causes.
As you can see, loneliness is about far more than simply “feeling blue”, and can have serious effects on our overall health. While some solitude is important, and some moments of loneliness are unavoidable, try to get out there and engage with the wealth of wonderful people out there in the world.
After all, you’re a human being, and as we’ve learned over the past few million years – we don’t do well on our own!