Over the last few months, several articles and studies were published pointing to a rising epidemic of loneliness washing across America. The disease peaks at critical developmental stages in the late twenties, middle fifties, and eighties. The researchers in this large collaborative study were shocked with the prevalence of loneliness among the three-hundred and forty adults participating in the study. Over three-quarters of the participants reported moderate to severe symptoms of loneliness (Lee et al. 2018) How this study of San Diego residents projects on America as a whole can be debated; but the overwhelming numbers suggests there is a problem that must be combated.
Loneliness is not a newly discovered ailment. In 2001, Robert Putman’s popular book, Bowling Alone, examined the collapse of social capital in America, as traditional group membership incurred severe declines. Social groups still live on, perhaps much stronger than before, just they moved from the clubhouse and churches to the internet. There are some obvious differences when communicating without the minute non-verbal messages sent and received from reflexive muscles than the unemotional words flashing on a computer, occasionally punctuated with an emoji.
Adding to underlying causes is the relentless pursuit of self. We are several decades into this ‘me first’ movement. By exalting ourselves above others, we are finding that the peaks at the top are quite lonely. There are some serious trade-offs when living by self-promoting mottoes, aggrandizing our needs over the needs of others.
"Social groups still live on, perhaps much stronger than before, just they moved from the clubhouse and churches to the internet."
Under these current frameworks of perception, combating loneliness tends to exacerbate the problem. We focus on our loneliness, creating a disease in need of a cure, while ignoring the underlying virus of disconnection spreading relentlessly across fracturing communities.
Loneliness isn’t necessarily a disease of being alone. We can be alone and feel connected. But we can also, be in a crowd and feel alone. Relationships can cure loneliness when the relationship provides the necessary connection. Many relationships don’t. People are simply lonely together. Nietzsche connects loneliness with shades of distress, weariness and gloominess. (1989). Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior author of the San Diego study, defines loneliness as ‘subjective distress.’
Loneliness is marked with many precursors for depression. When we are lonely, we are vulnerable. Our subjective distress arises from the sense of missing connection in our lives. We feel emotionally alone. We can sit on the sofa, holding hands with our lover, experiencing a spectrum of emotions without outward expression. Our anxieties, sorrows, angers remain bottled inside the pressure chamber of our hearts. We adapt by suffocating the life out of the emotions, pushing them deeper rather than allowing them to flow and interact with others. The stoic approach to emotions is not a new phenomenon. The stoicism of the wandering cowboy has drawn respect from many grappling with the emotional flows of living. Perhaps, these solitude wanderers were not as grounded as we outsiders perceive, fighting their own internal demons, while maintain a still unresponsive face.
Actor and comedian Robin Williams said, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”(As cited 2015) Loneliness affects a social species that needs more than togetherness but rich connections of trust, acceptance, and support. We are social animals and need the emotional attunement of others who can embrace not just our bodies but our souls.
We must transcend inclinations to fearfully suppress emotional expressions in exchange for acceptance. The internet doesn’t provide the secure environment for deep sharing. Instead, our personalization of experience, shrouded in vulnerable emotions becomes a stomping ground for ridicule. Hurtful messages are slung hurting our souls while the aggressors never see the injuries inflicted. Those who incite draw a crowd with their disrupting frenzies, encouraging more chaos and more hurt.
We need to relearn the art of emotional attunement. We need to learn the skills of forging deeper connections not dependent on an attached smiley face to confer the emotional message beneath the words. Our loneliness motivates drives to connect; but in deprivation we often adapt through hypervigilance, examining social cues with critical judgments. The loneliness spoils connections with fears and insecurities. The lonely perceive themselves as victims when in actuality their intense fears perpetuate the problem. (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Boomsma. 2013). The trauma state limits skills of attunement. Our personal tragedies impede efforts to attune to others experience and we retreat into our own drama, furthering the loneliness.
Basically, poor cognitive skills increase loneliness overtime. The defensive adaptations that shield the ego precipitate distance. Under this umbrella, we find the connecting fibers between much of the popular psychology literature, pushing for greater emotional intelligence and mindfulness. The mindful attunement to emotions—emotional intelligence—fosters skills that connect. We are able to develop relationships that fulfill evolutionary demands for closeness.
"The loneliness spoils connections with fears and insecurities."
We need to feel and be felt. This is the transformational experience of connection. Diana Fosha taught that a deep transformation occurs within the self when with a true other. This is achieved from knowing “we are loved, understood, empathized with, and affirmed…” (2000). This can only through the vulnerability of expression of inner states of experience. We allow others inside to see who we are. We broadcast to a select few in honesty, “this is me.” This echoes David Richo’s five A’s of attachment—acceptance, appreciation, allowance, attention, and affection. (2002).
The loneliness epidemic will only be cured through a new wave of connection, straying from the stubborn mindset of serving ourselves. Only when we open our hearts to attune to others can we set in motions a new framework for perceiving the world. What’s best for me, in reality, also includes what’s best for you. When we are willing to step away from the hundreds of superficial friends on-line and engage in committed and vulnerable connection with others, we will fulfill the biological drives for rich connection, then, and only then, will we lose the bands of loneliness and enjoy the health happiness that blesses the lives of the emotionally connected.
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Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. (2015). Loneliness. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 238-249.
Cacioppo, J.T; Cacioppo, S. and Boomsma, D. I. (2013). Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness.
Fosha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books. Retrieved from Kindle
Lee, E.E. Depp, C. Palmer, B.W. Glorioso, D. Daly, D. Liu, J. Tu, X.M. Kim, H.C. Tarr, P. Yamada, Y. and Jeste, D. (2018) High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor.
Published online: 18 December 2018
Nietzsche, F. (1989) Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Vintage Books.
Putman, R. (2001) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community 1st Edition. Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster
Richo, D. (2002). How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. Shambhala; 1 edition. Retrieved from Kindle.