Loneliness: the very depths of darkness and isolation. Given all of the pain, wouldn’t you like to know the whys of it all? Well, University of Chicago researchers have worked hard to help us understand. Very interesting and powerful information…
Just as physical pain is a dashboard light directing our attention to some sort of physiological issue, loneliness is a dashboard light directing our attention to a social relationships issue.
Much for us to learn, so let’s dig-in…
Yes, over 10 years of research reviewed by the UChicago team indicates that loneliness increases self-centeredness. And the double-whammy of it all is self-centeredness increases loneliness, in kind.
The interesting dynamic at play is known as a positive feedback loop. In short, positive feedback enhances or amplifies an effect by having an influence on the process that gave rise to it. A key feature of positive feedback is small disturbances get bigger.
That sure as heck applies here, and study co-author John Cacioppo backs it up…
If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated.
Real quick. Please understand that self-centeredness doesn’t automatically equate to selfishness. K?
Loneliness By the Numbers
What’s particularly interesting about the study is the loneliness increasing self-centeredness outcome was expected. But the discovery of the positive feedback loop – self-centeredness impacting loneliness – was a surprise.
As background, in previous research Cacioppo and his wife, psychologist Stephanie Cacioppo, took a worldwide peek at loneliness in adults of all ages. They found that 5-10% experienced loneliness constantly, frequently, or all the time. And another 30-40% constantly felt lonely.
The findings of this most recent research are based upon 11 years of data which was a portion of the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study. The study’s general population random sample consisted of 229 individuals ranging in age from 50 to 68 at the start of the study. There was great variation in gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Loneliness in Evolutionary Perspective
The Cacioppos point-out that early psychological research considered loneliness an abnormal or temporary feeling of distress that had no redeeming value or adaptive purpose.
Stephanie Cacioppo’s take? “None of that could be farther from the truth.”
In 2006, John Cacioppo and colleagues used a neuroscientific – biological – approach in proposing an evolutionary interpretation of loneliness. According to their perspective, humans lean toward specific emotions, thoughts, and behavior by virtue of evolutionary shaping of the brain.
Interesting and important observations from the Cacioppos…
A variety of biological mechanisms have evolved that capitalize on aversive signals to motivate us to act in ways that are essential for our reproduction or survival.
Physical pain is an aversive signal that alerts us of potential tissue damage and motivates us to take care of our physical body.
Do you see where the Cacioppos are going? Just as physical pain is a dashboard light directing our attention to some sort of physiological issue, loneliness is a dashboard light directing our attention to a social relationships issue. And within an evolutionary context, it’s all about survival.
Loneliness and Self-Centeredness
According to the Cacioppos’ evolutionary-biological point of view, humans have no choice but to be concerned with their own interests (self-centeredness). However, compared to the pressures that existed when loneliness evolved in humans, modern societal pressures are exponentially more powerful.
From John Cacioppo…
Humans evolved to become such a powerful species, in large part due to mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that proved adaptive in social interaction. When we don’t have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare. That is, we become more self-centered.
So in today’s society, becoming more self-centered protects lonely people. Well, at least in the short term. And that’s because the harmful effects of loneliness snowball over time, which takes its toll on one’s overall health and well-being.
Stephanie Cacioppo submits that when we’re at our best we provide mutual aid and protection…
It isn’t that one individual is sacrificial to the other. It’s that together they do more than the sum of the parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your own interests at the expense of others.
Loneliness Next Steps
As we wrap things up, let’s consider the study summary words of John Cacioppo…
Now that we know loneliness is damaging and contributing to the misery and health care costs of America, how do we reduce it?
Well, I guess that’s the millions-of-dollars question, isn’t it?
Certainly we can utilize traditional loneliness preventing measures such as staying connected with folk, getting out and about, managing isolation, etc.
But you know, we can’t ignore the positive feedback loop. And that means we have to work on the self-centeredness that cycles around to exacerbate loneliness.
So it really isn’t solely a matter of traditional loneliness prevention. It’s also about gaining insight into how we use self-centeredness for protection, and learning to pursue safety and security in relationships. Only then will we further the cause of mutual aid.
Your loneliness reduction ideas? Please share in a comment.
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