It is a cruel irony that we are living in an age where connecting with others has never been easier, and yet loneliness is on the rise.
It is a cruel irony that we are living in an age where connecting with others has never been easier, and yet loneliness is on the rise. Although we can now instantly communicate with each other across the globe, people are feeling more isolated than ever before. From the dawn of humanity, we have been social beings, so what happens when we cannot meet our intrinsic need for social connection?
(or social isolation) is the feeling of wanting to connect with others without perceiving the ability to do so, or experiencing “dissatisfaction with one’s social relationships”. It is a signal from our brain as strong as hunger, saying “you need to connect with others.” Connection is the critical part — simply being surrounded by others is not enough.
Loneliness has been linked to:
- increased depression;
- increased risk of heart disease;
- heightened mortality rates;
- chronic illnesses;
- decreased immune response; and
- increased inflammation
When individuals experience chronic loneliness, researchers have identified that the body’s inflammation can increase. This affects the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions including fear and anxiety. Those experiencing loneliness can be prone to interpret social stimuli, such as facial expressions, more negatively. Misinterpreted social cues may regrettably lead those impacted by loneliness to further avoid social interactions thereby aggravating their sense of isolation.
Addressing Loneliness by Connecting with Others
Researchers generally acknowledge that loneliness is best addressed directly, in the same manner that hunger is addressed by finding food. But like food, certain things will be more fulfilling than others. Attending more social gatherings and being surrounded by people may not necessarily equate to a corresponding increase in fulfilling social relationships or reduced feelings of social isolation. Connecting with others isn’t always easy and although individuals may be surrounded by their peers, feelings of social isolated may persist.
It can take significant effort to find a group of people who meet our needs for meaningful social interconnectedness. Volunteering is recognized as an excellent way to connect with others who share beliefs and values. Beyond its obvious social aspect, a sense of helping others can significantly increase feelings of personal satisfaction and interconnectedness. Psychotherapy that serves to challenge negative thought patterns and change perceptions that underlie feelings of loneliness may also make traversing the social world easier. Approaches that serve to address social anxieties can often assist individuals to change their perceptions and gain the needed skills to overcome feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Finally, improving communication and conversational skills can often increase the likelihood of having positive interactions with others.
Feelings of loneliness provides us with an opportunity to foster change in our social context and reconnect with others, like hunger provides us with the signal to eat. Social interconnectedness is a human need that is well worth the time to invest in to improve our sense of well being and overall health.