Magazine article Psychology Today

Solutions for the Solitary

Magazine article Psychology Today

Solutions for the Solitary

Article excerpt

IN EARLY EVERY WEEK brings new evidence of the grievous health effects of loneliness. Reportedly experienced by 40 percent of U.S. adults, chronic loneliness has been shown to depress immune system function, boost inflammation, and significantly raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. As dangerous as smoking or obesity, loneliness poses such a powerful threat to health and longevity that it increases the chance of an early death by at least 14 percent.

In addition to being linked to clinical depression, loneliness affects people's view of their relationships, leading them to believe friends and loved ones care less about them than they actually do. This perceptual distortion is what traps the lonely in their sense of social isolation. Emotionally raw, they are hesitant to risk rejection by reaching out to the very people who could help alleviate their loneliness, which creates a vicious cycle.

Loneliness is not defined by objective measures-it depends solely on the subjective experience of distress that one's social needs are unmet. Indeed, studies have found that over 60 percent of people who report feeling lonely are married and live with their spouse. Conversely, many people who live alone or who have few friends don't feel lonely and exhibit none of the condition's typical psychological or physical symptoms. In other words, it is not the number or proximity of our social relationships that matters, but the internal sense of their quality and depth.

A study published in January in Personality and Individual Differences added to the understanding of how perceptual distortions reinforce loneliness. Looking at the ways people signal their commitment and caring to friends and romantic partners, and the degree to which those signals are accurately perceived, researchers in Japan developed a series of hypothetical scenarios categorized as either high-cost, low-cost, or commitmentsignal failures, depending on the level of sacrifice and effort they require. A high-cost signal, for example, is if you call a friend to talk about a pressing personal problem and he cancels a standing plan so he can stay on the phone with you. A low-cost signal is an email of congratulations from a friend after hearing that you've passed an important exam. A signal failure is when a friend or partner forgets your birthday.

The study's main finding was that the higher people rated on a scale of loneliness, the less likely they were to interpret a friend's or partner's high-cost commitment signal as a confirmation of their bond. While both the lonely and the nonlonely are equally likely to perceive something like forgetting a birthday as a disconfirmation of their bond, high-cost signals are significantly muted in the eyes of the lonely, which may make them feel less valued than they actually are and ultimately more socially isolated.

Loneliness can seem intractable to the degree that it's built on a misperception of social bonds. However, people can take steps to break free of the loneliness trap.

Re-evaluate gestures of caring and commitment. Know that when we feel lonely, we are most likely judging our friends and loved ones too harshly. We need to re-evaluate gestures or actions we might be inclined to dismiss as insignificant. …

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