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Loneliness

Social Connection Isn't Solving the Loneliness Epidemic

Could compassionate interdependence be the answer?

Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash

My friend once told me a story from her childhood about being at a fair with her mom and brother, happily walking along holding her mother’s hand, when suddenly an unsteady Ferris wheel seemed like it was about to come toppling down on them. Her mom saw what was happening, let go of her children’s hands, and ran in the opposite direction, leaving her children to fate. My friend believes her mom loves her, but jokingly refers to this moment as the watershed one where she realized we are all in this alone, together.

Feeling alone in the world can take its toll. When we are lonely our cortisol levels increase. Our sleep becomes more fragmented and less restorative. Our lonely brain goes into self-preservation mode and we become less empathetic and concerned for others. Our elevated cortisol levels keep us in distress and our ability to tolerate and resolve conflicts with others is diminished. Of course, this makes us feel more disconnected from others, and alone.

As you’ve probably heard by now, we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and it’s apparently killing us. The U.S. Surgeon General has declared social isolation and loneliness public health crises. Researchers who study loneliness tell us disconnection and loneliness increase our mortality rates to a level on par or worse than alcohol misuse, obesity, and smoking.

There are books and articles everywhere telling us we need social connection to enhance well-being. These multiplied in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as social isolation became a way of life because most of us believed physical separation and going contactless to be a necessary sacrifice to save lives. Even before the pandemic, the pressure and desire to connect for the sake of our well-being was everywhere. Apparently, not only our psychological well-being suffers when we are lonely, but our very survival depends on not being socially isolated or feeling alone. We are told that we need social connection as much as we need other health-promoting behaviors, like exercise or the Mediterranean diet.

But how many of us have experienced intense levels of disappointment, hurt, rejection, and betrayal when we try to interact with others? Being together can amplify how alone we feel.

Every day, people scroll through social media accounts only to find out they have not been invited to social gatherings or “liked” by a friend. Couples sit beside one another on the sofa, painfully aware of how alone they feel even though they are both there.

Social activity often fails to facilitate social connection, and can make us feel worse for trying. Rejection and indifference from others can make socializing feel more like a threat to well-being than a benefit. The pervasiveness of experiences with toxic interactions becomes instructive, as we learn we will be judged, rebuffed, or even go completely unnoticed when we put ourselves out there. Social connection often hurts. Indifference hurts. Our souls get crushed, along with our dreams of feeling a sense of belonging to each other and the world. So we give up. And go it alone.

According to pioneering loneliness researcher John Cacioppo, it doesn’t matter whether you actually have connections with others; what’s important is whether you feel like you have connections with others. Noreena Hertz, author of The Lonely Century, describes it as both an internal state and an existential one, and believes lonely people provide us important insights into what’s broken in our relationships, communities, institutions, and systems.

And how do we feel connected to one another? Connection requires certain conditions to be present: Unless we feel seen, heard, accepted, respected, and valued by another, we risk feeling stressed and alone, no matter how many people we are with. In order to be seen and heard, we must first be noticed. Noticing another’s humanity is a necessary step in developing compassion for another’s pain and suffering. Compassion promotes a sense of common humanity and directs us to act in ways that show we’re all in this together.

A lack of compassion disrupts our capacity for social networks. When we experience social rejection or indifference from others, our cortisol levels rise which causes our brain to go into a hyper-threat detection state, which introduces attentional, confirmation, and memory biases into our social interactions. We start to misperceive things. Our ability to be other-focused is diminished. Until we feel a sense of belongingness that comes from acceptance and the expression of compassion, we remain in a me-state, rather than a we-state, of mind.

Despite all the talk about loneliness and lack of connection, we have neglected to emphasize the need for compassionate connection. Social connection is not enough to meet the human need of social belonging; we need to be there for one another. We need compassionate interdependence to disrupt the cycle of loneliness.

Social gatherings and being sociable are ineffective in calming our social threat detection systems. When we aren’t relating compassionately, we can activate the cycle of loneliness and make everything worse. In our relationships, when we are socially rejected, judged, treated with indifference, unsupported, or have unmet needs, we are more susceptible to experiencing chronic emotional distress and unstable self-regulation. Chronically elevated stress levels make us feel more exhausted, which will likely lead to a lower tolerance for any negative emotionality we might feel.

The more our social connections fail to create compassionate interdependence, the less likely it is that we will be up for trying to connect with others, and the lonelier we will feel.

When we experience compassionate interactions, it lights us up. We start to “tend and befriend." And we feel less lonely.

When we experience compassionate interdependence, it activates our socioemotional brain networks and triggers oxytocin release. And we feel connected.

Without a compassionate component to our social connections, we are vulnerable to social network disruption behaviors that lead to chronic states of distress. When we don’t act to alleviate one another’s distress, our intertwined lives enable a perpetual state of behaviors that keep us stuck in loneliness and disconnection.

Maybe we need community. Maybe we need collective acts of compassion. Maybe we don’t need social events. We just might need to notice each other and say we are a person worth seeing and paying attention to, because we’ve collectively claimed our value, worth, and interdependence. We need to notice pain and distress, and commit to walking alongside each other and helping where we can. Then when we must do some of the hard things alone, maybe we won’t mind going it alone, because it would still feel like we belong to each other.

References

L.A. Peplau, D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A Source Book of Current Theory, Research and Therapy, Wiley (1982), pp. 1-18.

Saarinen, A., Keltikangas-Järvinen, L., Viding, E. et al. Compassion protects against vital exhaustion and negative emotionality. Motivation and Emotion 45, 506–517 (2021).

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/28/loneliness-is-like-an-i…

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