Loneliness is rightly being called an epidemic: One in four Americans say they don’t have someone they can talk to about their problems, and a third say they feel lonely at least once a week. It’s as much of a health risk as obesity, and lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely. When given a cold by experimenters, the lonely report worse symptoms than those with healthy relationships.
To treat loneliness, you need to know where it comes from. John and Stephanie Cacioppo, a husband and wife team of psychologists at the University of Chicago, say that the emotion has an evolutionary purpose—to get you to connect with people, and think more about yourself. Related research indicates that the human brain has evolved to expect other humans in our lives, since being bonded with others makes survival way easier. It’s important to note that loneliness isn’t the same as simply being alone—a third of married adults report feeling lonely. Rather, it’s what happens when your present relationships don’t meet your needs. And according to recent research by the Cacioppos in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, what made loneliness a helpful emotion to our ancestors may only make things worse today.
“Humans evolved to become such a powerful species, in large part due to mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that proved adaptive in social interactions,” John Cacioppo said in a statement. “When we don’t have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare. That is, we become more self-centered.”
New data supporting this evolutionary perspective comes from a 10-year study of 229 middle-aged people around the Chicago area, split between the region’s largest three ethnic groups: White, Black, and Latino. Once a day per year for an entire decade, they came into a U-Chicago laboratory to fill out measures of loneliness, mood, depression, and self-centeredness.
A fascinating pattern unfurled over time: When respondents reported higher levels of loneliness one year, they had greater self-centeredness the following year, as Emma Young notes at BPS Research Digest. A pattern between greater self-centeredness being followed by greater loneliness the next year was also present, but the link wasn’t as strong. Over the course of years, this can become quite the vicious cycle: loneliness queues self-centeredness, and self-centeredness leads to greater isolation.
But if we know that thinking about yourself lots is something that maintains and exacerbates loneliness, then that also avails the same pattern to intervention. The researchers say that it would be effective to target the “social cognition” of lonely people, helping to turn their attention to “mutual interests and welfare” rather than their own isolated selves. In other, less academic language, that might mean getting more involved in their communities or, as former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has encouraged, bonding more with their work colleagues. In experiments, mindfulness meditation training has been shown to help people literally notice others, making them more likely to give up their seat to someone on crutches than people using the “brain-training” app Luminosity. trained in cognitive skills.
If the Cacioppos’ hypothesis about the origins and mechanisms of loneliness holds true, then people can be trained in the patterns of attention and thinking that will help them bond more with others. It’s kind of like how targeting rumination helps so much with reducing depression: the more you know the building blocks of an emotional pattern, the better you can disassemble them.