I’ve heard a lot of talk on this topic in the last couple years, from the JRE podcast to big companies like CNN. I read a piece from The Globe and Mail on the experiments from a psychology professor at Rice University, Dr. Chris Fagundes, who administered rhinovirus 49 (the common cold) to patients who claimed to suffer from loneliness.
The control group was the portion of individuals who said they were neither socially isolated or lonely and what they found was those self-described lonely people experienced more symptoms of the common cold than those who weren’t lonely.
Fagundes said the increased response to the common cold wasn’t a mind-over-matter situation either, as the lonely people claimed they had more physical symptoms.
He stated that socially isolated people are at risk of illnesses including cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and dementia.
A 2015 study from the Brigham University concluded that isolation is supposedly just as harmful as other ailments including obesity, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
More and more revered publications are reporting on the “epidemic of loneliness,” including the New York Times, Forbes, and the BBC. A woman by the name of Tracey Crouch was appointed as the “minister for loneliness” in the United Kingdom.
That seems crazy to me, the idea of having an entirely separate government branch dedicated to stomping out loneliness and all of its symptoms.
And by crazy, I don’t mean offensive or stupid, but unexpected and emblematic of the strange problems we face as a modern society.
Typically, we have government branches which handle transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, or corruption. To have a ministry meant solely for one single mental health problem is pretty wild.
With modern society comes modern problems, and with all of our technological advancements, a person’s life can come crashing down due to something so simple. Moreover, there’s a stigma around the concept and loneliness is typically conflated with not having friends or anyone close in your life (which is probably true in a lot of cases).
However, to be lonely doesn’t necessarily signify that a person doesn’t have friends, family, or people to chill with, it means a person feels as if their social interactions and connections aren’t deep enough, there’s something missing. They’re not making a genuine connection with others, for whatever reason.
The first thing that came to my mind is the #MeToo movement.
Agree with what’s happened with it or not, I think if women hadn’t talked about it together, it would be easy for them to feel all alone as if they’re facing off against the effects of traumatic abuse all by themselves like no one else could possibly understand what they’re going through.
However, every time a girl tells her story, it’s as if they’re no longer alone, another woman who reads it feels like she isn’t the only one. Maybe, there isn’t something wrong with her after all.
If women weren’t open about their experiences, there wouldn’t be a forum to vent, making each person feel like they’re dealing with it by themselves, regardless of the people they connect with every day.
It’s possible for a person to be surrounded by friends and family at all times but still feel out of touch, like an outsider. On the other hand, someone else can spend a majority of their time in solitude but not feel lonely at all. It all depends on the quality of the time spent with others, and how deep those connections run.
You know, If I’m talking with people whose interests I don’t really understand, whose views are entirely different from my own, even though I’m surrounded by them, joking around, having fun, it’s not quite the same as when I’m talking with a friend and he understands something about me that others don’t.
As for why loneliness makes people feel so shitty, apparently, scientists aren’t exactly sure on how to explain it empirically, but there are theories.
It’s pretty obvious to the average person, but determining the causal link with near certainty is more challenging than you’d think, after all, in science, there is no such thing as proving something with absolute, 100% causality.
Theoretically, a person needs to have quality connections with family and friends to feel less alone, it’s common knowledge.
We don’t need a scientist to tell us that people need to connect with others. However, when determining the link between physical sickness and emotions, we need more than a hypothesis or a suggestion.
According to a doctor named Dr. Lisa Jaremka, people who are studying loneliness have two theories as to why it has such a devastating effect. One hypothesis is that loneliness increases stress hormones, cortisol, which, when in overindulgence, lead to all kinds of health consequences including sleeplessness, high blood pressure, indigestion, depression, and disease.
Jaremka thinks it’s far more innate, the link is more than just stress hormones.
According to Dr. Steve Cole, loneliness is a problem because of the way our immune systems fight against bacteria and viruses. Viruses are transmitted via person-to-person whereas bacteria are typically caught through dirt, food, or the environment (but they can be exchanged through peer-to-peer as well).
Because of the innate differences in how bacteria and viruses function, our bodies developed unique ways of fighting each one. The inflammatory response facilitated by our body is meant to fight bacteria, whereas anti-viral cells are released to fight viruses.
Humans can’t fight bacteria and viruses well at the same time, it’s either one or the other, and our anti-viral response is much stronger than our anti-bacterial one.
When a human being is in the middle of the flight-or-fight response – the one where our heart rate jacks so we’re ready to escape danger – it directs our bodies’ resources toward fighting bacterial infections.
And here’s the kicker: loneliness creates the same effect as the flight-or-fight response. Dr. Steve Cole says, “one way of thinking about loneliness is it….is constantly activating this defensive stance in our body that’s getting us ready to be injured.”
Back in 2007, Cole and his cohorts discovered those people inflicted with loneliness are geared more towards an inflammatory response in their white blood cells, meaning their bodies are ready to fight bacterial infections more so than viruses, hence common colds becoming more disastrous for people who are lonely than those who are not.
And anybody who has watched their parents or grandparents die knows that those who are unhappy and alone in their final years, typically go downhill faster than others.
Mark Robinson, a man responsible for the charity titled, Age UK – a group dedicated to helping out seniors – said the number one killer of older people is loneliness.
And the former surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, argued that increasing levels of isolation and loneliness in the workplace is one of the most significant problems faced by American society today.
The epidemic of loneliness and our knowledge of its effects comes at one of the worst times too, considering the recent cascade of allegations of sexual assault against men in nearly every sector of society, but perhaps most visible, in Hollywood.
I’ll explain why it’s come at a bad time.
Because of the #MeToo movement, places like NBC – the network responsible for a ton of content in the United States – have now implemented a policy permanently banning employees from seeing each other, dating, or hanging out together outside of work. They’re looking to stomp out inter-employee dating altogether.
On one hand, we have a “connection” problem where people aren’t having meaningful relationships, but on the other, we’re stomping out any chance of a relationship in the world in which we live.
A part of me thinks it’s tragically ironic, even hilarious, on some level.
Anyway, with all of that said, I’m not saying people shouldn’t spend time alone, because there is a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude just means being on your own, being lonely is not having your social needs met by others around you.
As I mentioned earlier, you can be surrounded by people, but still feel lonely. Loneliness has nothing to do with the number of people that you know and spend time with every day.
Being alone gives a person time to mentally unwind, to reflect on their day, how they felt, if they enjoyed themselves, and what they plan to do with the rest of their time.
It allows you to concentrate, focus, and collect your thoughts; to direct your energy toward a goal, whatever it may be. If you’re anything like me, you work the hardest when alone.
If I’m reading a challenging book, like The Gulag Archipelago (although, a lot of people would say it’s not hard, for me it is, so fuck you), it’s best to have absolutely no one around.
In the last few years, I figured this out about myself. I didn’t realize how easily distracted I am by the environment.
Lately, I’ve been working in a café near my house which is practically deserted at most hours, there’s never anyone in there, and I can finish my work in around 2 and a half hours. It’s insane.
However, I never understood myself when I was a kid. It really is true that we understand ourselves better as we grow older.
And with all of that time to reflect, that time spent figuring out who we are and what we want, we’re able to set and enforce clear boundaries regarding what we’re willing to accept in life.
A lot of people are scared of getting older, but the truth is that I couldn’t be any more excited because I’ve never understood myself better. I know what I’m all about, and part of that comes from self-reflection during times of solitude.