What your loneliness is telling you

New science says being lonely speeds aging. Old philosophy says the holiday blues are a signal to examine and change your life.

Published December 22, 2008 11:31AM (EST)

In "Four Christmases," the hit holiday movie, Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn star as a happy, young San Francisco couple, Kate and Brad, who navigate the merry minefield of four Christmas visits to their respective parents' homes in one single day.

Amid the gags about puking infants and do-it-yourself satellite-dish installations, "Four Christmases" mocks the storied holiday rituals designed to bring us together in cozy celebration. One by one the traditions -- sometimes literally -- go down in flames. The gift exchanges by the Christmas tree, the special holiday food and the pageantry of the Christmas story acted out at church -- with Kate drafted into the role of the Virgin Mary and Brad as Joseph -- fail to cement fractured family ties.

Even the old ploy of playing board games to diffuse family tensions and suppress awkward conversation proves hopeless. As the frantic couple comically race from one Christmas celebration to the next, Kate complains to Brad: "I feel like we're not really connecting. I feel like you're not really present." The seasonal frenzy is so fraught that at one point Brad says woodenly to Kate: "I've shut down. I'm shutting down."

"Four Christmases" invites us to laugh at how the holidays can make us feel lonely and isolated, even when we're surrounded by our loved ones and family members. It is small wonder this comedy is a hit -- despite some real groaner gags -- as the holidays cause an awful lot of people to feel lonely in a crowd.

Our profound need to feel connected is hardly a modern discovery. "No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world," Aristotle wrote. Yet science is now bringing us closer to the biological roots of loneliness, revealing how it affects our mental and physical health. At the same time, philosophers have not stopped looking into the dark heart of loneliness, challenging us to face its existential roots. In very different ways, two recent books on loneliness argue that feeling chronically alone is a powerful sign to examine and strive to change our lives. And now is the season to start.

"The holidays can put us into such a harried state that we're not actually able to connect with friends and family, to relax and enjoy their company," says John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, and co-author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection." Worse, all those holiday rituals of togetherness can serve to highlight just how far apart from each other we really feel. "Events that throw into relief the possibility of overcoming our loneliness are sometimes those that leave us most wrung out," says Thomas Dumm, a political scientist at Amherst College, author of "Loneliness as a Way of Life."

While most of us can successfully weather a few hours -- or days -- of the holiday blues, some 20 percent of people -- roughly 60 million Americans -- feel sufficiently socially isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives. In fact, many lonely people are surrounded by friends and family, yet don't feel close to any of them. Such intimate isolation -- the feeling that no one understands who you are -- appears to be on the rise. A study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona found that between 1985 and 2004 the average number of friends with whom Americans felt they could "discuss important matters" had dropped from three to two. The number who said they had no one with whom they could discuss important matters more than doubled to nearly 25 percent.

Cacioppo, an evolutionary psychologist who has studied social connection for 30 years, stresses that chronic loneliness has well-documented health effects. For decades, scientists have known that social isolation impacts our health in ways comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity and smoking. In short, being lonely is bad for you. But what Cacioppo and his colleagues have found is that it's not literally being alone, but the subjective experience known as loneliness that causes harm.

"Whether you're at home with your family, working in an office crowded with bright and attractive young people, touring Disneyland, or sitting alone in a fleabag hotel on the wrong side of town, chronic feelings of loneliness can drive a cascade of physiological events that actually accelerates the aging process," he writes.

While brief periods of loneliness, such as your first semester away at college, or following the death of your spouse, doesn't appear to cause grave harm, chronic loneliness does. The long-term lonely are likely to suffer more diseases at an earlier age, and die younger than those who feel close to others. By middle age, the lonely drink more alcohol, eat more fat and exercise less than their more social fellows. The experience of feeling lonely -- whether or not you're surrounded by family, friends and co-workers -- impacts stress hormones, immune function and heart health. Loneliness can even be measured on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a test that you can take yourself here.

One popular theory for why loneliness is linked to disease and early death is known as the "social control hypothesis." As Cacioppo explains, "We thought that the explanation was if you didn't have a spouse, if you didn't have friends, there was no one to kind of badger you to take care of yourself." In other words, the nag factor: "Honey, you have to see the doctor for that fever today! I'm calling to make an appointment right now." But epidemiological research has found that such loving nagging alone cannot account for all of the health impacts associated with loneliness, which include higher blood pressure, weakened immune function and increased stress hormones.

One 2007 study identified a unique pattern of gene expression in immune cells from people who are chronically lonely. Researchers at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology linked loneliness to alterations in the activity of genes that drive inflammation -- the first response of the immune system. "What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes, the activity of our genes," says one of the researchers, Steve Cole, an associate professor of medicine in the division of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine.

But why do our bodies go haywire over being lonely? Cacioppo believes that loneliness developed in humans at a time when social isolation very literally meant death. "Loneliness essentially puts the brain on high alert," he says. "We don't have very large muscles. We're not very fast. We don't have the protection of flight. If we're standing with a stick by ourselves, trying to fend off wild beasts, we're not going to live long."

In prehistory, if you felt isolated, alarm bells should have been going off in your brain telling you to find some sympathetic fellows -- fast! "It's just like if you're in physical pain, or hungry, or thirsty," says Cacioppo. "We think of loneliness as a signal to change your behavior to allow you to prosper." A biologist characterizing our species would dub us "obligatorily gregarious."

Researchers have also found that loneliness takes a toll on our sleep. One study found that people who scored high on a loneliness scale slept the same number of hours as those who did not, but their sleep was less restorative, since they suffered from more "micro-awakenings," or times when you wake up for a few moments, and then go back to sleep. Consequently, the lonely were more fatigued the next day.

Cacioppo attributes the poor sleep of the lonely to the sleeper feeling subconsciously vulnerable to attack. "The most dangerous time in evolutionary time, when loneliness was sculpted, isn't when you're awake by yourself with a stick fending off wild beasts, it's when it's time to fall asleep, because then you lay the stick down, and you don't have a safe social surround to protect you. You're really subject to predation at that point. The brain is kind of on this threat surveillance."

Although we might expect a lonely person to welcome new acquaintances, the opposite is often the case. "When people feel lonely, they are actually far less accepting of potential new friends than when they feel socially contented," writes Cacioppo. Researchers have found that lonely undergrads hold more negative perceptions of their suite mates and other peers; loneliness truly does breed more loneliness. "You interpret other people's behavior as hostile and intending to harm you," says Cacioppo. "You end up creating more hostile social environments as a lonely individual. That's what makes it so hard to overcome."

While technology has given us all sorts of novel ways to connect and stay in touch -- from Facebook to texting to Twitter -- Cacioppo contends that such digital communications are great if they facilitate and enhance face-to-face interactions, but they can increase feelings of loneliness if they are a substitution for in-person interaction. He compares online communication as a balm to loneliness to eating celery when you're hungry; it's food, but it's not going to fill you up like a nutritious meal.

Cacioppo believes that people can overcome loneliness, even chronic loneliness. After all, our biology is telling us to do just that. Knowing that your lonely state is a defensive one, he says, is the first step to recovery. To begin the process, Cacioppo councils taking on low-risk social encounters -- like feeding the hungry in a soup kitchen -- before venturing into more challenging social milieu. "If you're feeding other people, you'll find that those people are very grateful and very positive in return, and then you end up having this warm glow of human interaction." The first step can be as small as remarking to a stranger at the library, "I loved that book."

Not everyone who thinks seriously about loneliness believes that comfort can begin to be found in such small gestures. Dumm, author of "Loneliness as a Way of Life," sees loneliness as a condition of our modern era, rather than a biological holdover from our wild-beast-fending-off past. "The idea that by going out and volunteering in a soup kitchen, you're going to alleviate a deep and fundamental sense of aloneness, is to try to put a band-aid on a gaping wound," he says. "You think that you've solved the problem, and basically you've ignored it. Most of those prescriptions seem to me to usually intensify the condition that we're suffering existentially."

Dumm views loneliness as a part of the human condition, which has become more pervasive in our post-industrial society, where family ties have weakened and entertainment serves as a ready substitute for social interaction. "The very texture of modern life is inflected by loneliness," writes Dumm, who draws on "King Lear" and "Death of a Salesman" in his exploration of the subject. Movingly, he reckons his own grief at the death of his wife, as well as his own mother's loneliness amid the tumult of bearing and bringing up nine children.

"After her childbearing years had ended," he writes, "my mother used to say that she missed being pregnant because that meant she would have a few days off in the hospital when it came time for delivery, a little postpartum vacation, where she could stay in bed all day while the nurses served her meals." Late in life, she was diagnosed with depression.

For Dumm, loneliness is really about loss. He argues that we have to be willing to reflect on the tragic dimensions of human existence, including the inevitability of our own deaths, to face and ameliorate our loneliness: "That we are death-bound is not news, and yet perhaps it is the most important news, the only news that matters," he writes.

Only through earnest reflection and a willingness to examine how we live our lives can the ache of loneliness be transformed into its less painful companion: solitude.

"Solitude is a healthy way of being alone with oneself. One engages in an inner dialogue," Dumm says. "One of the things that our culture really tries to discourage is thinking, reflection, seriousness. I think that we have to have more confidence in our ability to be thoughtful people. We spend an enormous amount of time worrying about ourselves, but not an awful lot of time caring for ourselves. Caring for ourselves means thinking very seriously and carefully about the conditions under which we're living our lives, and how others are living theirs, and taking instruction from the way that others have lived their lives."

That might not make for a good punch line in a holiday blockbuster like "Four Christmases," but when all the presents are unwrapped and the relatives have gone home, it could make the New Year a little brighter.


By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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