We evolved to have secure relationships with others. When these relationships are threatened, we are genetically programmed to feel the pain of loneliness. In the same way that the feelings of hunger or thirst tell us to find food and water, the feeling of loneliness tells us to find people to be with. The types of relationships we are used to today are not the same as when we were evolving, due in part to the qualities of the digital age. Loneliness is on the rise. We need new approaches to overcoming loneliness.
There is a lot of study of loneliness going on now. This may be due to the rising number of people who report themselves as being lonely, and the adverse health consequences of long-term loneliness. In the 1980s, 20% of Americans reported themselves as being lonely at any given time. Now the percentage is around 40%.
The adverse mental and physical effects of loneliness are numerous. Loneliness negatively affects sleep, lowers immunity, and adversely affects emotional control. Loneliness can increase “depressive symptomatology, shyness, anxiety, and fear of negative evaluation,” and it “decreases self-esteem, social skills, and overall mood.” (Cacioppo 2013). As we age, loneliness contributes to hypertension and dementia.
In the digital age, many jobs that in the past could only be done by people working together, can be done by one person working alone. I know of a young woman who was hired to run a small U.S. office of a foreign company. It was just her alone in the office. But, with Internet connections, instantaneous worldwide communications, video conferencing with foreign co-workers, and virtual services available to her, she managed very well. She could accomplish what in the past may have taken an entire staff of people to do. It was a good job, but she quit it after a short time. What was the problem? She was lonely.
Entertainment used to be a communal do-it-yourself affair — people singing together in the evenings, telling stories to each other, or playing board games. Now games are played on computers or mobile devices, with little face-to-face interaction between players. With the coming of the digital age, each individual commands great personal resources, which eliminates much of the need to interact and work with each other.
Loneliness is a product of both environment and genetics. If you are raised in a large close family, you will likely be lonely if you go off to another country to school or work. For example, some people coming from India to work in U.S. tech companies report being very lonely. Coming from a country where households are often still multigenerational, the experience of living anonymously in an apartment, with no close friends, can take a terrible toll of loneliness.
I recently read a post by a young man from India, working in the U.S. He was terribly lonely and could not make friends. He said that if he had not found a wife by the time he was thirty his parents would arrange a marriage for him. The problem was, he was only twenty-two, and could not see how he could bear being lonely until then.
Of course, we have been moving towards the digital age for a long time. Ever since people left their farms and moved to city factories, we have been becoming more and more mobile, and less and less tied to closely knit communities. You would think we would be used to being alone by now, and would have learned to cope with aloneness without being lonely.
Here is where genetics comes in. Scientists tell us that the propensity to be lonely is hereditary. As a relatively small, slow, weak species, we survived and thrived by working together. It is the community of humans who mastered the Earth, not the lone warrior. We evolved to build and maintain strong familial, tribal and collective ties to each other.
A key to maintaining relationships was the pain of loneliness. Because being alone in the ancient world was tantamount to a death sentence, we evolved to feel the pain of loneliness when we sensed that our relationships with others were threatened. This tendency to be lonely when alone is hardwired into our genes. So, you might call it the “loneliness gene.” The potential for loneliness is baked into every cell of our bodies.
Not everyone has the same tendency to be lonely. People are genetically different. Children from the same family, raised in the same environment, can have very different sensitivities to being alone. This again is hereditary. In the ancient world we survived better if most people stayed together, keeping each other safe. However, a few individuals were very comfortable venturing off into the wild by themselves. These adventurers broke new paths for the community as a whole, and were important for overall survival.
So it is today. One person may be very comfortable going to a different city or a different country, and living alone. Another person from the same family may have very different genetics, and may suffer terrible loneliness when he or she moves away.
What to do
If you are lonely the standard advice is to simply get out among people — volunteer, join clubs, take classes, etc. I am not going to repeat all of this advice here. In a future article I will talk about meditation and focusing on the needs of others as effective means of combating loneliness. Here, though, I want to talk about two things: acknowledging it when you are lonely, and understanding the extent of your need for people.
Apparently, many people who are lonely do not want to admit it. Perhaps to do so is to admit the vulnerability that results from not being an accepted part of a group. In ancient times, those who were not part of the clan, and did not enjoy its protection, could be picked off by predators. Lonely people today do not face this particular danger, but the feeling of vulnerability can arise from ages old genetic programming.
If you are lonely it is important to at least admit it to yourself, so you can take steps to create the close relationships you need. One way to find out if you are lonely (assuming you do not already know it) is to take the UCLA test for loneliness. One version of the test can be found at UCLA Loneliness Scale.
Not everyone has the same need for other people. As I noted earlier, one sibling may be very happy living alone in a distant city, while the other can suffer terrible loneliness. Before deciding to move away from a situation where you have friends and family, think about whether the toll in loneliness will be worth whatever awaits you over the hill.
For example, assume Caitlyn and Marie are California girls who have been best friends since childhood. Neither is especially gregarious. When they apply to college both are accepted by UCLA, but Marie is also accepted by Brown. What to do? If Marie decides to go to Brown she will be far away from family and her best friend. Will she be so lonely that she cannot fit in? Will loneliness affect her health? These are serious questions that are not often addressed in the mad rush to get into the best school. Going to Brown will be of little advantage if Marie spends her time there being lonely and depressed.
Don’t compare yourself to others. You are unique, and the best thing you can do is understand yourself. In the area of companionship one piece of advice does not fit everyone. For some, the best thing in the world might be to go it alone — perhaps do a solo trek across Europe, staying in hostels, meeting all kinds of people, and testing what you can do alone. A loner has all kinds of unique skills that need to be tested, developed and exploited.
For others, the group and the family is the thing. These people have different skills that they must hone.
Learning to know who you are and how much relationship you need may be the most valuable thing you can do.
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My sources for this article are the 2013 paper, Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness, and the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.  A useful introduction to this information is the TED talk. The Lethality of Loneliness, by Professor Cacioppo.
 John T. Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo & Dorret I. Boomsma (2014) Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness, Cognition and Emotion, 28:1, 3-21, DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2013.837379. To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2013.837379.
 Cacioppo, John T.; Patrick, William (2008-08-17). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Photo credit: The picture accompanying this article is by D.E. Hardesty. The photo of the young woman in the picture is copyrighted to pathdoc/Dollarphoto.com.