Eric K. Mason
January 31, 2015
Loneliness and Wellbeing
Mental health professionals have long suspected that loneliness is bad for one’s health—both physically and mentally/emotionally. On the other hand, psychologists have recognized the protective factors offered by strong social connections and a sense of community in one’s life. Recent research has linked social connectedness with such benefits as “a greater pain tolerance, a stronger immune system, and a lower risk of depression and early death.” In other words, the subjective experience of one’s emotions can have a direct impact on his or her health.
Unfortunately, it would appear that people are leading more and more isolated lives. For example, one study found that “personal and friendship networks have shrunk over the last 35 years.” To complicate matters, demographics are changing. For example, people are living longer than ever, while divorce rates are as high as 50%. Therefore, more and more people are growing old without the close support offered by an intimate partner. Such changing demographics make maintaining friendships even more important.
Having a strong social network is so important for one’s health, one study found that those with strong social connectedness were 50% more likely to still be alive at the end of a longitudinal study. Weak social networks are as bad for one’s health as being obese or smoking. Indeed, social isolation correlates highly with shorter life expectancy.
The negative effects of feeling lonely include higher blood pressure and depression, as well as increased levels of fatigue and sensitivity to pain. Additionally, chronic feelings of loneliness may negatively affect the ability of one’s immune system to ward off disease.
However, physically being isolated is not necessarily what is bad for one’s health. Actually, feeling socially isolated is what appears to be unhealthy. For example, people who may not have many friends and are not distressed or feel lonely by this, are less likely to experience the negative effects of loneliness. On the other hand, those who are surrounded by others, but nevertheless feel lonely, are likely to experience the negative effects of loneliness. Furthermore, feeling lonely was associated with a greater likelihood of death over the course of a six year period.
One study has pointed toward a link between genetics and feelings of loneliness. This may explain why different people may be more affected by loneliness than others. Additionally, this helps explain why biological processes may be so attuned to social connectedness. Perhaps, our social connectedness and biological processes evolved simultaneously. Others theorize that the constant state of stress caused by chronic feelings of loneliness is what causes a deterioration of health.
Given that loneliness can be so detrimental to health for some people, the next question would be what one should do if he or she finds himself in a state of loneliness. Research recommends that making new friends is most likely the best solution. However, making new friends as an adult can be challenging.
Some studies have pointed out that it is easier to establish friends when one is a familiar face. In other words, people tend to become friends with those with whom they are familiar. Therefore, psychologists recommend that for those wanting to make new friends, they should stick to a routine, such as frequenting the same coffee shop at the same time of day, which would allow them to become familiar to others around them.
Lastly, one must realize that it is all in his or her head. If one focuses too much on feelings of loneliness, he or she may begin a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, being overly focused on feelings of loneliness may lead to negative thoughts which, in turn, may lead one to isolate oneself and, therefore, become lonelier. Those who experience loneliness should attempt to share positive aspects of their lives with others, rather than focusing on what is negative, as well as avoid the urge to self-isolate.
Miller, A. (2014, January). Friends wanted. Monitor on Psychology, 45
(1). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/