Language of Love

The season and science of loneliness

Posted Dec 16, 2016

Source: Mayur Gala

For many people, young and old, the holiday season may ring in—or at least exacerbate—a sense of loneliness. But, really, could such a heavily orchestrated overdosing of “forced” festivity derive a different outcome?

More important is whether or not there is a sufficient social safety net to protect those feeling bad.

Indeed, some years ago Harvard professor Robert Putnam published the book “Bowling Alone,” in which he explored the downward spiraling of civic engagement. As examples he cited declines in petition signing, organization joining and, oddly enough, bowling with others. In short, he documented a growing disinclination to connect with neighbors, friends and, yikes, even family.

While causality is multidimensional (including changes in work environments, family structures and technology), the suffering appears quite real.

In her September 2016 New York Times Health piece, “Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness,” Katie Hafner points to the United Kingdom as home to a “serious public health issue deserving of public funds and national attention.” Paul Cann, chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire and one of the founders of The Campaign to End Loneliness, states in the article, “Loneliness has to be everybody’s business.” 

Is such isolation unique to the UK? Of course not.

Hafner reveals that in Britain and the United States, nearly one in three people over the age of 65 lives alone, with rates of loneliness among those over the age of 60 hovering somewhere between 10 and 46 percent.

Wow.

Significantly, these feelings are predictive of physical illness, functional and cognitive decline and even early death.

Sadly, older people are not the only ones for us to worry about—and not only at this time of year.

In adolescents, loneliness may be less a “feeling” than a byproduct of healthy human maturation. In other words, the changing minds, bodies and social networks that accompany this increasingly vast, vague period of development may leave young people vulnerable to perceived social isolation.

While there is some debate about whether social media creates more or less loneliness (a 2014 study revealed that teens are less lonely than their parents were at the same age but have fewer friends) or more or less happiness—it’s clear that many of America’s teens and emerging adults are at risk.

To wit, new data show that among those ages 12-17, “the prevalence of depression increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014,” while among those ages 18-25, “the prevalence climbed from 8.8 percent to 9.6 percent ... "

Such research also prompts the query—does loneliness cause depression? And, here, it gets tricky.

A study published long ago (1980) measured loneliness and depression in undergraduates and determined that while the two constructs are correlated, they remain different, with neither one “causing” the other—although they probably share some etiology.

Others aren’t so sure.

For example, in his article “Depression Is a Disease of Loneliness,” Andrew Solomon, author of the book “The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression,” cites a UK study in making the case, “Those who have friends frequently go through life unaware that others do not, because those others are so isolated as to be socially invisible.” He continues, “In an era in which Facebook has made ‘friend’ into a verb, we often confuse the ambient intimacy of websites with the authentic intimacy that comes with sharing your life’s challenges with someone who cares—who will be sad because you are sad, happy because you feel joy, worried if you are unwell, reassuring if you are hopeless. We are imprisoned even in crowded cities and at noisy parties.”

I call that “lonely though never alone”—an affliction ascribed to many a college student, perhaps especially those in their first year.

Columnist David Brooks also raises the question of whether social media is making us lonelier (he concludes no), arguing that socially “engaged” people use it for more engagement while lonely people use it to hide their loneliness. Brooks further speaks to how saturating in social media may “flatten the range of emotional experience” and quotes Andrew Sullivan’s New York magazine essay “I Used to Be a Human Being.” In it, Sullivan writes, “By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of [intimate] interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines—a Facebook ‘friend,’ an Instagram photo, a text message—in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s ‘contacts,’ efficient shadows of ourselves.”

Sounds reminiscent of loneliness to me. 

It also begs the question that journalist Kate Murphy poses in her article “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?” She shares that research shows only about half of perceived friendships are actually reciprocal and concludes, “It’s a startling finding that has prompted much discussion among psychologists, neuroscientists, organizational behavior experts, sociologists and philosophers. Some blame human beings’ basic optimism, if not egocentrism, for the disconnect between perceived and actual friendships. Others point to a misunderstanding of the very notion of friendship in an age when...social inclusion and exclusion are as easy as a swipe or a tap on a smartphone screen. It’s a concern because the authenticity of one’s relationships has an enormous impact on one’s health and well-being.” 

Similarly, in “So Lonely It Hurts,” Gretchen Reynolds speaks to evolution of loneliness from early humans to today’s, stating, “A social animal that feels itself to be isolated from its kind begins to behave nervously and experiences unhealthy physiological responses. The body produces more stress-­related biochemicals, leading to inflammation and a reduced ability to fight viral infections. These adaptations might help explain why many chronically lonely people have an overabundance of stress-­related cells and weakened immune systems. But how they see the world—how loneliness affects their thinking—may be just as consequential to their health.”

Cause and/or effect, around and around we go.

So in this season of (potential) loneliness, what’s the panacea? Companionship might seem to be the obvious answer but, as Andrew Solomon states, for those who don’t want it such an intervention is unlikely to be helpful. Instead, he points to learning (and teaching) emotionality.

Solomon counsels, “Many people...are desperate for love, but don’t know how to go about finding it, disabled by depression’s tidal pull toward seclusion. Loneliness will not be fixed by medication, though pills may instigate the stability to open up to friendship’s liabilities: potential rejection, exhausting demands, the need for self-sacrifice...But there are ways to help people who want friendships to learn the language of affection.”

What are they?

  • Schools and parents can model for children effective ways to engage.
  • The arts, such as film, poetry, literature, music and poetry, can show how relatedness looks.
  • Psychotherapy can help to identify methods and models of friendships.

Together or apart, these tools can connect the disconnected and the language of affection can become a language of love.

’Tis the season.

References

Brooks, D. (2016). Intimacy for the avoidant. The New York Times. October 7, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/07/opinion/intimacy-for-the-avoidant.html (11 Dec. 2016).

Hafner, K. (2016). Researchers confront an epidemic of loneliness. The New York Times. September 5, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html (11 Dec. 2016).

Kimball, H. (2014). American teens aren't nearly as lonely as their parents were, study says. CNN. November 24, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/24/health/teenage-loneliness-declines/ (11 Dec. 2016).

Laursen, B. and A.C. Hartl. (2013). Understanding loneliness during adolescence: Developmental changes that increase the risk of perceived social isolation. Journal of Adolescence 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.06.003 (11 Dec. 2016).

Murphy, K. (2016). Do your friends actually like you? The New York Times. August 6, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/do-your-friends-actually-like-you.html (11 Dec. 2016).

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. http://bowlingalone.com (11 Dec. 2016).

Rapaport, L. (2016). Depression becoming more common among U.S. teens. Psych Congress Network. November 14, 2016. http://www.psychcongress.com/news/depression-becoming-more-common-among-us-teens (11 Dec. 2016).

Reynolds, G. (2015). So lonely it hurts. The New York Times. December 10, 2015. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/so-lonely-it-hurts/?_r=0 (11 Dec. 2016).

Solomon, A. (2014). Depression is a disease of loneliness. The Guardian. August 16, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/16/depression-disease-loneliness-friends (11 Dec. 2016).

Sullivan, A. (2016). I used to be a human being. New York Magazine. September 18, 2016.  http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html (11 Dec. 2016).

Weeks, DG, Michela, JL, Peplau, LA and ME Bragg. (1980). Relation between loneliness and depression: a structural equation analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. December 1980. National Center for Biotechnology Information. US National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7205551 (11 Dec. 2016).