Lonely Together

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Polly Becker / www.pollybecker.com

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.

 “But what I knew was that no matter what social species you’re talking about, all the way down to fruit flies, if you isolate them they die earlier,” Cacioppo says. “That’s probably not due to social control from friends and family. There’s something more interesting and more direct.”

In 2002 Cacioppo launched a longitudinal study of middle-aged and older Americans around Chicago, tracking their health and daily habits. This work has shown that loneliness predicts not only depression but also higher blood pressure and increased cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. It also makes sleep less restful because of tiny, subconscious awakenings throughout the night. Some of its most troublesome effects are cognitive: Social disconnection contributes to Alzheimer’s disease and impairs “executive functioning”–the ability to control thoughts, emotions, and impulses.

Twenty percent of Americans, about 60 million people, Cacioppo estimates, suffer from loneliness that is chronic and severe enough to be a major source of unhappiness. One study, for instance, asked respondents to list the number of confidants they had. In 1985 the most frequent answer was three. In 2004, when researchers repeated the survey, the number had dropped to zero. One-fourth of participants, drawn from a cross section of the American public, reported having no one to talk to intimately.

The reasons for this rise in social isolation are well documented: American life is less rooted and more hectic now than in the past. Jobs and friendships are transitory; rates of divorce and single parenting are high. More people move away from home, and more people live alone–that number has increased by 30 percent in the past 30 years, Cacioppo says.

Onto this landscape, social media–Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn–erupted, exerting an influence more complicated, Cacioppo says, than some people might think. People who use the Internet to generate or enhance in-person relationships benefit, he says. But when online connections substitute for face-to-face ones, users become lonelier and more depressed. Lonely people are likely to use the Internet as a crutch, the nonlonely as a leverage. “So,” Cacioppo says, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

In December 2009 Cacioppo copublished a paper suggesting that loneliness is contagious. Using data from a longitudinal study in small-town Framingham, Massachusetts, he and his colleagues charted a social network of more than 12,000 ties among 5,124 people, determining that having one lonely friend raised one’s chance of loneliness by 40 to 65 percent. A lonely friend-of-a-friend raised the chance by 14 to 36 percent. By the third degree of separation, the increased likelihood was slighter still, and beyond that the effect disappeared. The phenomenon makes sense to Cacioppo. “When I’m lonely, I’m more likely to interact with other people negatively,” he says. That bad feeling spreads. “Think about it: You have a bad day at work, you go home, your spouse suffers. Well, so do strangers and friends you interact with.”

That study helped inform a new project. Working with sociologists, Cacioppo is constructing a spatial map of Chicago’s South Side, in which each of the 82 neighborhoods is subdivided based upon where people feel more and less lonely. The next task is to explain the map. Cacioppo is looking at features such as block parties, well-kept homes, clean streets, public facilities, and crime. How much difference does a community center make? What about flower boxes along the sidewalks?

An even more delicate task is figuring out how to solve individuals’ persistent loneliness. In August, Cacioppo and three other coauthors published a sweeping analysis of every study on loneliness intervention from 1970 to 2009. Treatments fell into four types: fostering “social contact” by connecting lonely people; offering “social support” from visitors; teaching social skills; and training in “social cognition”–the ability to understand and navigate social interactions. Of these, the last yielded promising results.

In Loneliness, Cacioppo laid out general recommendations for fighting loneliness; he and a clinical psychologist are working to shape them into a course of cognitive behavior therapy. He advised readers to reach out, even in small ways, to those around them, to volunteer, to say hello to someone at the grocery store or the library, and eventually to find compatible, fulfilling friends. To open their lives.

Excerpted from University of Chicago Magazine (Nov.-Dec. 2010), an enlightened bimonthly publication aimed at alumni but relevant to a wide range of readers and interests. http://magazine.uchicago.edu

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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