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What Hedgehogs can Teach us about Human Connection and Combating Loneliness

During a pandemic, it’s natural that a lot of us have felt lonely at some point. Whether that feeling is from living alone and suddenly having to work remotely, or spending 24/7 with your family instead of your like minded colleagues; it’s all rooted in a feeling of disconnection. In fact, the feeling of loneliness […]

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During a pandemic, it’s natural that a lot of us have felt lonely at some point. Whether that feeling is from living alone and suddenly having to work remotely, or spending 24/7 with your family instead of your like minded colleagues; it’s all rooted in a feeling of disconnection. In fact, the feeling of loneliness can exist regardless of the amount of social contact you engage in. What most of us don’t realize is that loneliness isn’t just unpleasant, it can also have serious health consequences. According to the CDC, loneliness significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death, is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia and a 29% increased risk of heart disease.  

Although seemingly unrelated, hedgehogs actually serve as a metaphor for human relationships – a metaphor first articulated by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and later expanded into a psychological concept by Sigmund Freud called the hedgehog/porcupine dilemma. The parable by Schopenhauer serves as an incredible allegory for how humans navigate human connection through the back and forth pendulum swinging motion between guardedness and intimacy. In the parable, Schopenhauer describes the way hedgehogs huddle together for warmth on a cold day. As you can imagine, there is a real truth to the saying “too close for comfort” in this equation. Their quills begin to prick each other, so they disperse. Then they become cold again, and the cycle repeats. Finally, the porcupines discover that, by having a little distance between one another, they could find a balance – close enough to share in a collective warmth, but enough distance to protect from the pricks of proximity. 

Similarly, a new age of evolving digital media, social distancing, and rampant political divisiveness are leaving many of us lost and lonely trying to find the sweet spot of human connection. Schopenhauer’s parable is a piercing illustration of the paradoxical nature of vulnerability in relationships. Vulnerability makes relationships deeper and more fulfilling, while simultaneously growing the risk of a deeper hurt. In an article written for FastCompany, researcher Brené Brown discusses the findings around loneliness and explains that as a social species, our strength is not derived from individualism but from our ability to co-exist and co-create, which seemingly exemplifies the hedgehog dilemma. Our neural, hormonal and genetic makeup supports interdependence. Yet, a culture of screen to screen communication and striving for personal success conditions us for the opposite. 

Like the hedgehogs, combating loneliness takes working together to figure out the nuances of how we can come together. Referencing John Cacioppo’s research, Brené explains that at the heart of loneliness, is an absence of meaningful social interaction. Meaning that social interaction without vulnerability will also lead to the same prickles of loneliness as isolation would. So, how do we find the same balance that the hedgehogs were able to achieve in Schopenhauer’s parable? Contrary to what many think, research proves that the solution is not to have more social connections, but rather to improve the quality of your current relationships. And to do that, we must improve our ability to identify the feeling of loneliness as a signal to find connection, rather than our evolutionary response of self preservation. 

Which brings us to another enormously complicated question – how do we define true connection and belonging? Brené crafted a research and data driven definition, “true belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” In an interview for a series airing on PBS, author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the hedgehog dilemma and perfectly echoes Brené’s definition of true belonging. She says, “the porcupines who had learned to generate their own warmth were able to keep the safest distance from other porcupines, which didn’t necessarily mean living a life of isolation, it just meant not impaling yourself on other people. The path to that is the closest secret to happiness as anything I’ve ever learned.” 

Follow Stephen Bittel on Medium and LinkedIn.

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