People need people. In order to avoid loneliness we need other people more than we let on. The average person spends about 80 per cent of their waking hours in contact with other people. Without regular positive contact with other people we can easily start to feel isolated and lonely. But being physically on your own is not necessarily a problem or an unhealthy way of living. Living alone is not necessarily related to poor psychological or physical health. In fact some people tend to fare better living on their own compared to those who live in an unhappy relationship (Michael, Berkman, & Kawachi, 2001). The problem is not being alone. The problem is the feeling of isolation and loneliness.
Loneliness is the subjective feeling of being socially isolated. People’s experience of being isolated is not always related to the number of social interactions that they have – it’s true – you really can be alone in a crowd (Cacioppo, Fowler, & Christakis, 2009).
Loneliness hurts. It really hurts. And social pain is just as real as physical pain. We might try to rationalise that it’s only our subjective emotional experience and not “real” physical pain like a broken arm. But the brain registers social pain in the same brain regions as it registers physical pain. To the brain, pain is pain, irrespective of origin (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). Chronic loneliness can be debilitating and may be associated with a wide range of negative outcomes including high blood pressure, diminished immunity, increased risk of depression and even mortality in older adults.
If you think you might need some help, some contacts are:
- Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999 within Auckland
- Depression.org.nz (8am to midnight) – 0800 111 757
- Youth Line - 0800 37 66 33
Content adapted from: Coach Yourself, by Anthony Grant and Jane Greene, and Eight Steps To Happiness: An Everyday Handbook, by Anthony Grant.
Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 97(6), 977-991.
Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fmri study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
Michael, Y. L., Berkman, L. F., & Kawachi, I.(2001). Living arrangments, social intergration and change in functional health status. American Journal of Epidemiology, 153, 123-131.