A Lonesome Crowded World at Risk

By catalyst

A transgression by my significant other last spring compelled me to end our (mostly) fulfilling three year relationship, a development that could not have come at a worse time. The trauma of that breakup was coeval with and compounded by intense physical pain from acromioclavicular ligament reconstruction surgery. I was sent tumbling into a dark emotional vortex. The anguish of my loneliness was equal to or greater than the pain of my jerry-rigged shoulder. Luckily, my roommate at the time was one of the most considerate people I’ve ever had the great fortune to know, and his unflagging support rescued me from my emotional abyss. Had he not been there, I might not have recovered and, as several studies suggest, my loneliness could have been transmitted to others and/or resulted in serious health problems, possibly even premature death.

Scientific research in the last 30 years has provided ample evidence linking loneliness to increased physical and mental stress, largely because it affects the levels of stress hormones (e.g., corticosterone and cortisol) that regulate the body’s ability to convert fat, proteins and carbohydrates into energy.

Loneliness is more or less a physical and mental gremlin. It’s associated with all kinds of unpleasant stuff: cardiovascular ailments, viral infection, increased mortality, heart disease, cancer, anxiety, hostility, pessimism, etc. While the negative manifestations of loneliness have been enumerated by researchers for decades, it’s only recently that scientists have been able to show exactly why.

According to a study published two years ago, loneliness actually disrupts human health on a microscopic level, tweaking our very DNA in ways that match patterns of “elevated immune activation, inflammation, and depressed response to infection” [Discover]. By short-circuiting the reception of cortisol at glucocorticoid receptors, loneliness inhibits the body’s control of its immune and anti-inflammatory responses. To put that in normal-ese: loneliness makes you sick and scientists now know exactly why, which could lead to possible treatments for it.

“According to John Cacioppo, an author of the study…the work suggests that loneliness is a warning sign, much like physical pain. ‘This very process of feeling bad because of disconnection contributes to what it means to be human,’ he says. ‘It makes us care for other people and want to reconnect when we’re disconnected’” [ibid].

[Author’s digression: That incredibly insightful and humane quote reminds me of another. The late writer David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and the soon-to-be-published incomplete posthumous novel Pale King) said in an interview: “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters’ pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might be just that simple” [Dalkey Archive Press].

The idea of our interconnectedness was seriously bolstered by recent analysis of the famous Framingham Heart Study. Researchers interviewed 4,793 people every two years from 1991 to 2001 as part of a federally funded study. Two-thirds of Framingham adults participated in the study’s first phase in the middle of the 20th century, and in subsequent phases it chronicled two succeeding generations, creating a collage of demographic data that described the community’s social network and amassed a treasure trove of data.

“The analysis of data collected in the Massachusetts city found that lonely people considerably increase the chances that someone they know will themselves feel lonely, and that solitary feelings can span one more degrees of separation, causing a friend of a friend or even the sibling of a friend to feel desolate. Moreover, people who become lonely eventually move to the periphery of their social networks, becoming increasingly isolated, which can exacerbate their loneliness and affect social connectedness, the researchers found” [Washington Post]. (Quotation edited for clarity.)

In that same Post article, John Cacioppo—a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who collaborated on the study with Nicholas Christakis from Harvard University and James Fowler from UC San Diego—paints a bleak picture of loneliness’ progression through a social network.

“‘Let’s say for whatever reason—the loss of a spouse, a divorce—you get lonely. You then interact with other people in a more negative fashion. That puts them in a negative mood and makes them more likely to interact with other people in a negative fashion and they minimize their social ties and become lonely,’ Cacioppo said,” [ibid].

So, if loneliness is both deleterious to members of our social communities and can be transmitted from the lonely to the socially well-adjusted via negative emotions, then can there be an antidote? One might propose that a lonely person who endeavored to surround herself with optimists and supportive friends and family would be cured. But Cacioppo’s statement seems to suggest that the contagious nature of loneliness precludes such a social remedy. Indeed, the study even suggests that allowing the lonely to interact with well-adjusted people risks setting off a domino effect whereby loneliness propagates through society, potentially putting everyone at risk of becoming lonely. That’s one of the most depressing contingencies I can possibly imagine. A world of lonely, disconnected people.

Sadly, that projection isn’t far off the mark. As of 2005, 27 million people in the United States, nearly 12% of the population, lived in their own little cocoons.

The flip side is that the same study indicates that happiness might also be contagious. Scroll to the bottom of this article over at Wired.com and check out the snazzy graphic illustrating happiness’ social vectoring, even on social networking Web sites like Facebook. It points out that being around a happy friend—or, as the New York Times notes, “if your friend’s, friend’s friend becomes happy”—the probability of you being happy increases by 9%. An extra $5k in income increases that probability by a measly 2%. Money can’t buy you happiness after all, eh?

Basically, the study finds that happy people tend to have happy friends, unhappy people, unhappy friends. I understand the Framingham Heart Study people were probably trying to use terms commonly understood by the most people, but the problem with happiness as a subjective term is its wildly transitory nature. One can feel alternatively happy and sad innumerable times during a day. I’m happy when I wake up cozy in bed on a cold winter morning and significantly less so when I spill hot coffee on my lap during my morning commute. I’ll accept that certain people are happier than others in the main, and I would count myself among their ranks. Perhaps the question at hand is whether happy individuals, when faced with crises and trauma, retreat from their uplifting relationships to hole-up in loneliness, thus risking their own well being and, as the above studies mutually reiterate, that of entire social network.

All of the above cited studies and articles emphasize the importance of humane networks, of establishing meaningful, persistent, interpersonal connections. So get off your computer, go out there, and socialize. Who knows, it might just save you like it did me.

This article was originally published on January 6, 2010.