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It is estimated that over 40% of us will feel the aching pangs of loneliness at some point in our lives. Yet despite how common loneliness is, few people are fully aware of the dramatic ways in which it impacts us. Here are 10 surprising facts about loneliness that will change how you view this all-too-common but devastating psychological condition:

  1. Loneliness does not depend on how many friends or relationships you have. Loneliness depends entirely on the subjective quality of your relationships—on whether you feel emotionally and/or socially disconnected from those around you. That is why...
     
  2. More than 60% of lonely people are married. When married couples no longer share their deepest feelings, thoughts, and experiences with one another it can leave them feeling disconnected and alone. (See What to Do When You’re Married and Lonely.) People in such relationships truly believe their spouse cannot offer them the deep connection they would like. While their fears might be correct, they might also stem from the fact that...
     
  3. Loneliness distorts our perceptions of our relationships. Studies have found that merely asking people to recall times they felt lonely was sufficient to make them devalue their relationships. These perceptual distortions often cause lonely people to withdraw even further from the very people who could alleviate their loneliness. Making matters worse, their friends might be hesitant to connect as well, because...
     
  4. Loneliness is contagious in social networks. Loneliness has a clear stigma: We tend to be able to spot and identify the lonely people around us. One study found that over a six-month period, lonely people were pushed to the periphery of social networks and surprisingly, so were their friends. Being pushed out "into the cold" in this way has a surprising effect on our bodies...
     
  5. Loneliness actually makes us feel colder. Studies found that recalling a time in which we felt lonely made participants estimate the room temperature as being significant colder. It even made their actual skin temperature drop. The idea of feeling ‘pushed into the cold’ resonates from our evolutionary past in which being ostracized from our tribes meant being kept away from the warmth of the hearth and the social group around it. Indeed, our bodies respond to loneliness in dramatic ways...
     
  6. Loneliness makes our bodies feel like under attack. Loneliness causes an immediate and severe bodily reaction. It increases in blood pressure and cholesterol, and it activates our physical and psychological stress responses. Which is why...
     
  7. Chronic loneliness significantly increases our risk of cardiovascular disease. Over time, people who are chronically lonely have a much higher incidence of cardiovascular disease because their bodies are under constant and unrelenting stress. But that is not the only impact loneliness has on our bodies...
     
  8. Loneliness suppresses the functioning of our immune system. Loneliness causes our immune systems to function less efficiently, which over time, puts us at increased risk for developing all kinds of illnesses and diseases. Even brief bouts of loneliness impact our immune system, which is why...
     
  9. College freshmen who felt lonely had poorer reactions to flu shot. Even a few weeks of loneliness were sufficient to impact the immune systems of incoming college freshman such that those who identified as feeling lonely had poorer reactions to seasonal flu shots that students where were not lonely. Taken together, loneliness impacts our bodies so severely...
     
  10. Loneliness is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. Scientists have concluded that given all the drastic ways in which loneliness impacts our bodies, it represent as great a risk for our long term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes. Indeed, studies have concluded that chronic loneliness increases our risk of an early death by 14%.

Clearly, loneliness represents a hugely important psychological injury and not one we should ignore. Therefore, make sure to take steps when you are lonely, and to educate lonely people around you about the dangers of remaining lonely.

Hear about my own experiences with loneliness in my TED talk here.

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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