If you feel lonely, you are not alone. Loneliness is an unpleasant feeling that people get when they desire but are denied social contact with other people. People can be surrounded by other people, yet still feel socially isolated and lonely. The experience of loneliness is universal and occurs in all cultures. It may have origins in our evolutionary heritage, but ultimately is the result of a combination of factors ranging from genetics to personal decisions.
Evolution and Loneliness
In the seemingly perverse logic of evolution, even extraordinarily unpleasant human emotions are adaptive. They guide us to act in ways that are in our ultimate interest. Fear makes us flee from danger. Anger compels us to attack our perceived foes, and anxiety mobilizes us to prepare for exertion. Loneliness, triggered by a desire to connect with others, reaches deep into our soul and pushes us toward others. It is a noxious stick that nature uses to remind us that we are social beings, who need and crave contact with others of our species.
Researchers at the University of Chicago working with genetic researchers from the Netherlands have found a genetic component to loneliness. Their results, described at News.UChicago.edu, suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition to be lonely. Several traits were associated with the proclivity to be lonely, including poor esteem, low mood, anxiety, anger and lower sociability. These researchers found that 35 percent of men and 50 percent of women reported moderate to extreme feelings of loneliness. Notably, this study was conducted in the Netherlands, a culture where people report less loneliness than in the United States.
Cultures and societies differ in some aspects of loneliness, such as the presence and availability of social networks and social support. Some societies have social structures that encourage greater interpersonal contact and involvement. People in European social democracies such as Denmark and the Netherlands have greater social integration, and their people experience less loneliness. The U.S. culture, with its emphasis on work, mobility, autonomy and individuality, may have the unintended effect of inflicting greater social isolation and loneliness on its members.
Developmental Experience and Personality
Psychiatric research has a history of identifying the personality correlates and developmental antecedents of loneliness. Lonely people tend to have more of a history of loss, trauma, inadequate support systems and negative, critical and harsh parenting. Lonely people tend to feel disliked and unappreciated. They tend to be self-involved, shy and self-conscious. These tendencies may serve as a wedge that further isolates people who are already feeling distant from others.
While loneliness might seem to be the result of factors outside the control of the individual, there are things that can be done to reduce loneliness, improve social connectedness and enhance well-being. Lonely people need to push aside their hopelessness, negativity and despair, and reach out to the social opportunities that surround them. If you are lonely, seeking help is worth the effort. After all, there’s a fair chance that the someone who you are not talking to is experiencing those same feelings of loneliness.