Loneliness and Isolation Contribute to Health Problems
Personality Types and Relationships
I've always considered myself an introvert - a trait that seems to run in my family. My sister once said to me, “You and I need to be alone sometimes to recharge our inner batteries.” This statement resonated with me, because it was the perfect explanation for how I feel about "me time."
But I also need social interaction. I like spending time with friends and family, although I do better in small groups than large ones (parties overload my brain and give me a tinge of anxiety). But human relationships are about more than mere interaction; they create psychological space and safety so we can explore and learn. When we feel safe and supported, we don’t have to narrow in on survival tasks, such as responding to danger or finding our next meal. We are able to explore our world, which builds resources for times of stress and adversity.
Not all people, however, have a large network of close friends; I know I didn't for a long time. What, then, happens to those who are alone? The first answer is that they often suffer from loneliness (even introverts need human companionship). And this, in turn, can lead to other complications.
How Loneliness Affects Us
First, loneliness shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function. Lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing people to premature aging.
In the study presented last month at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, researchers further revealed loneliness can harm the body’s immune system. They indicated people who are lonely experience more reactivation of latent viruses in their systems than those with a solid support network. Lonely people are also more likely to produce inflammatory compounds in response to stress, a factor implicated in heart disease and other chronic disorders.
Researchers are quick to point out that loneliness isn't necessarily a result of being alone. Think, for instance, of the bereaved spouse or the college freshman going away from home for the first time. These individuals can be around a lot of people but still feel completely isolated. In humans, perceived isolation is much more than mere physical isolation.
Meanwhile, happiness may be surprisingly contagious. Psychologist James H. Fowler studied the data of 5,000 people over 20 years and found that happiness benefits other people through three degrees of connection and that the effects last for a year. And unlike material goods, we usually continue to want our close relationships, even after we attain them, and to continue to derive positive emotions from them.
Coping with Loneliness
If you’re feeling lonely, try to get small doses of the positive sensations that come from good social interactions. Just saying to someone, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” or, “I loved that book!” can bring a friendly response that makes you feel better. Similarly, leaving your house or apartment and heading into public where you can casually talk with others can ease the dreaded feeling of loneliness.
And when it comes to friendships, some people think everybody has to like them in order to feel included. This isn’t true. All it takes is a small group of people that you are close to or can count on in times of need. Cultivating a few meaningful relationships will yield much greater joy than trying to get an entire village to befriend you.