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Understanding Loneliness

How older adults can stave off the isolating effects of chronic loneliness


John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., directs the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. He also co-authored Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, which explores the evolutionary roots of lonelinesss. We asked him to tell us why social bonds help us lead healthy lives, how loneliness threatens our well-being and what lonely people can do to break the destructive cycle.

See Also: All the Lonely People

What is loneliness? How is it different from solitude?

"Loneliness" expresses the pain of feeling alone, whereas "solitude" expresses the joy of being alone. Loneliness is a debilitating psychological condition. It is characterized by a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of control, and personal threat. Physical isolation can contribute to feelings of loneliness, but people can also be lonely in a marriage, in a family, in a crowd. And as the AARP The Magazine survey revealed, millions of people suffer from loneliness every day.

In your book you say that loneliness serves a purpose.

Early in our history as a species, we survived and prospered only by banding together — in couples, in families, in tribes — to provide mutual protection and assistance. Loneliness evolved like any other form of pain; it is what neuroscientists call "an aversive state," meaning it signals us to change our behavior, in much the same way that hunger, thirst or physical pain do. So even though loneliness feels like it has no redeeming features, it motivates us to renew the connections we need to survive.

Are loneliness and depression the same thing?

Simply put, no. Feeling socially isolated — lonely — means you want to be close to others but you're not sure whom you can confide in, depend on or trust. Feeling depressed means you generally feel sad and lethargic; when that's the case, even pleasant nonsocial events in your life, such as a beautiful sunset, seem less pleasant than normal. Loneliness refers to how people feel about their social connections, whereas depression refers to how people feel about their life overall. Because loneliness can lead to depression, a person may be both lonely and depressed. However, you can be depressed for reasons besides loneliness, and loneliness does not always lead to depression. Many students who go away to college experience feelings of loneliness and sadness stemming from the loss of contact with their friends and family, but the loneliness motivates them to make new friends; that way they escape the clutches of loneliness before it leads to depression.

It sounds like it's easy for people to get stuck in chronic loneliness.

We need others to survive and thrive, so loneliness makes us feel not only unhappy but unsafe. And when we feel unsafe, we respond by looking out for ourselves, which can interfere with connecting with others. So when a person becomes lonely, they can get caught in a negative feedback loop.

How would someone know if he or she is chronically lonely?

Most people feel lonely at some point in their lives. But that doesn't mean they are chronically lonely any more than feeling pain at some point in their lives means they are suffering chronic pain. If, however, a person feels lonely over a period of months or years, they could be characterized as chronically lonely.

Does loneliness have health risks?

Loneliness has been linked to poor immune functioning, elevated blood pressure, higher levels of stress hormones, lower sleep quality, obesity, alcoholism and drug abuse, and even dementia in older adults. The evidence has built to the point where loneliness can be considered a serious health risk, joining more established risks such as obesity or smoking. Loneliness also diminishes the brain's executive functioning, making it harder for lonely people to control their impulses, such as indulging in a guilty pleasure rather than exercising or eating well.

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