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Understanding the Language of Loneliness

Loneliness is a close friend to each one of us, a familiar experience in every step of our lives. For some, it can be a sudden, transient burst of nauseating feelings that rises from your gut while you are sitting alone on a train ride home. For others, it is an ever-present, omnipotent shadow of a voice, whispering self-destructive catchphrases at each social encounter with strangers and even friends.

Everyone has felt lonely at some point in their lives yet it affects us in a thousand different ways depending on our current state of emotional being.

All of us have (or still) felt lonely at some point in our life. Loneliness is not a distant, alien feeling to humankind’s existence. Philosophers and poets such as Sylvia Plath, Nietzsche, Rachel Carson, and Arthur Schopenhauer have made it a central theme in their works. Tales of loneliness populated folklore and cultures than as much as it existed in contemporary cultures and arts.

However, loneliness as an object of study has only been surfacing now. John Cacioppo aptly created a new term “social neuroscience” to define loneliness as an interdisciplinary phenomenon. One of the most influential books on the study of loneliness, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections (2008) is John Cacioppo’s Magnum Opus.

For two decades, he studied the importance of social connections, effects of loneliness, and showing the negative impacts social isolation has not only on mental health but physical health. His visionary research and decades worth of knowledge about loneliness are collected in this book and it eventually garners a global-wide concern in identifying and tackling loneliness including the current search for a pill for loneliness.

Even though it was released back in 2008, I think Cacioppo’s research is so comprehensive that it’ll be the core of any future studies on loneliness. So, in the spirit of sharing knowledge, here are several key takeaways from Loneliness that I will split into three parts highlighting different aspects of his excellent book.

Loneliness Is a Warning Sign We Should Listen

First things first, in Cacioppo’s research, he clearly makes the distinction between objective isolation and perceived isolation, which means that a lonely person doesn’t have to be alone to feel lonely. People in any kind of relationship can be lonely if they feel alienated from their friends, spouse, or family.
“Living alone, being alone, and the size of your social network is only weakly related. There’s a difference between being alone and feeling alone.”

Cacioppo explains loneliness simply as an emotional warning signal, a part of a biological early warning system to our social body’s needs similar to hunger. Loneliness has existed since the very first iteration of human history and existed universally in other social creatures on this planet. The feeling of loneliness protects us from the dangers of isolation, which itself is part of our evolutionary history since the concept of social circle existed whether it is a tribe or modern society. So, as part of humankind’s history, it is very normal to experience loneliness from time to time, because, like any other needs, it will — usually — go away once you satisfy it. The key is to acknowledge it when it is present.
“Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species.”

Unfortunately, unlike its physical counterpart, satisfying loneliness is a slightly harder thing to do than finding a restaurant to satiate your hunger. Social connections can be quite complicated, as we all know since it needs two willing individuals to ‘meaningfully’ connect. The word ‘meaningful’ is an important distinction when we talk about dealing with loneliness.

You can have a floating conversation with a bunch of people throughout the day about trends and news or you can talk to that one dear friend for hours about how you’re afraid of being left behind in life. The quality of social connections will be the determining factor whether it’ll help you or not, so it’s important to seek quality over quantity.

Between Genes and Environment, The Two Defining Factors of Loneliness

“Evolution fashioned us not only to feel good when connected but to feel secure.”
Some people love spicy flavors — they crave it in every food. For others, a simple, supermarket-grade hot sauce turns their face red and sends them gasping for water. Similar to taste buds like spiciness, the need for social connection varies between each one of us. Some people’s need for social inclusivity is so low they can tolerate moving away from family and friends without too much distress. Others who are more sensitive towards these social needs will find it very difficult, distressing, and stressful.
Cacioppo called these distinct characteristics the loneliness threshold, or just simply tolerance to loneliness.

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