Lonely Together

Acknowledging social isolation is the first step toward meaningful community

| March-April 2011

  • Lonely-Together

    Polly Becker / www.pollybecker.com

  • Lonely-Together

Two years ago, Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo co­wrote the book Loneliness, which advances a novel theory for this elusive emotional state. Loneliness, Cacioppo argues, isn’t some personality defect or sign of weakness—it’s a survival impulse like hunger or thirst, a trigger pushing us toward the nourishment of human companionship. Furthermore, he writes, “people who get stuck in loneliness have not done anything wrong. None of us is immune to feelings of isolation, any more than we are immune to feelings of hunger or physical pain.”

Being lonely isn’t the same as being alone, Cacioppo is careful to clarify. Lonely people can be surrounded by coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family. They’re no less attractive or intelligent or popular. What sets the lonely apart is a sense that their relationships do not meet their social needs.

That uneasy feeling goes back aeons. Loneliness was, Cacioppo believes, a powerful evolutionary force binding prehistoric people to those they relied on for food, shelter, and protection, to help them raise their young and carry on their genetic legacy. Cacioppo also points to the long years children spend utterly dependent on their parents. “It’s a good decade before they’re going to be able to survive on their own,” he says. Small wonder that isolation makes people feel not only unhappy but also unsafe.

Which is why loneliness can work: It prods people to reach out to those around them. “Some people get stuck,” Cacioppo says, “but on average, when you get lonely you do something to get out of that aversive state.”

Like other evolutionary adaptations, loneliness varies from person to person. There are extroverts and introverts. There are those who don’t seem to need friends at all. “That makes great sense because those are the explorers,” Cacioppo says. “We need them.” But for those who feel warmer near the communal fire, isolation works as a civilizing influence. “When children are acting selfish and narcissistic, you put them by themselves,” Cacioppo explains. “Well, that’s not a dramatic punishment, is it? And yet it’s painful.” Children cry; they beg to be allowed back into the group. When they do come back, “they’re better social citizens. They’ll now take the other child’s perspective; they’ll share their toys.”

Cacioppo’s interest in the subject began in 1988 when he read a Science paper whose conclusions seemed inconclusive. Three sociologists conducted an analysis showing that a lack of social contact predicted death from a broad range of maladies. The researchers suggested that “social support” from friends and family might foster “a sense of meaning or coherence that promotes health” and encourage loved ones to exercise, eat better, sleep more, and drink less.

3/9/2011 5:29:41 PM

One of the most unfortunately perceived and overlooked dynamics in human exsistence is the sense of urgency. Let me reframe this view along with another to demonstrate. You are born into this world alone and leave alone. No one is in your biopsyiology (even if you are twins.) Embracing this mindset should logically lead to a want to "know" others regardless of the depth or duration. The same theory is magnified in not believeing in an afterlife There is no downside in acting as if this is a one shot deal except not taking it seriously. In fact, treating life as staging ground for the next level is akin to having a few kids until you get the "right one." Not the point of this experiment called life.

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