What Drives Our Loneliness?

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.

When we perceive ourselves as lonely, it can actually imperil our health. Research has shown that both perceived and actual social isolation were associated with increased risk of early mortality. Studies have found links between perceived loneliness and heart disease, while other research has suggested that loneliness and social isolation may be a greater threat to public health in the United States than obesity.  On the contrary, when we feel socially included, both our physical and mental health improve. Feeling lonely can be temporary in cases like moving away from home or traveling on your own. It can be necessary like when exiting an unhealthy relationship or taking time to get to know yourself. Yet, loneliness isn’t something that we should take lightly. A loneliness survey, conducted by AARP, showed that more than 42 million U.S. adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.

According to the Encyclopedia of Human Relationships, “the most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress that results from discrepancies between ideal and perceived social relationships.” The key word here is “perceived.” Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Individuals can feel isolated or outcast in even the most social-seeming of circumstances. Alarmingly, one study in the United Kingdom, which surveyed millions of people, showed that one in 10 people didn’t feel they had a single close friend.

“As a social species, humans rely on a safe, secure social surrounding to survive and thrive,” wrote loneliness researchers Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo. So, what is making us feel so isolated? Science may be offering many answers to this question. Studies have shown that lonely people have more fear of negative evaluation and often engage in overly cautious social behaviors that perpetuate their social isolation. Ironically, social media has even been linked with increased feelings of social isolation among young people.

While there are many elements in our society that can drive us to feel removed or alienated, the prevalence of loneliness across a population of diverse ages and social backgrounds drives us to look closer at the personal psychological factors that are at play. “The isolation and comfort of contemporary society carry with it the risk of reinforcing psychological defenses that contribute to an inward, self-protective, and somewhat emotionally deadened way of being and living,“ wrote my father, Robert Firestone, in a book we co-authored Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion. Individuals build certain psychological defenses to adapt to their early environment that can hurt or limit them in their current lives. These defenses can lead to feelings of alienation, isolation, and depression. To truly face and fight our loneliness, we have to look inside at these deeper defenses, as well as the self-image we formed as a result.

Our psychological defenses come from negative experiences early in our lives that caused us to develop certain adaptations and behaviors, so we could feel safe and secure in our environment. An angry, erratic parent may have led us to stay quiet and retreat inward so as not to attract attention. An unavailable, distant or rejecting parent may have similarly caused us to retreat and try to be self-sufficient, taking care of our own needs. As adults, we maintain these adaptations even when they are no longer conducive to our current lives and relationships. We may be reluctant to trust again. We may harbor old fears of rejection, negative anticipations, or cynical views. We may project negative qualities onto others and practice caution in how we approach them.

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