How does loneliness compare to hunger or pain?
We know that satisfying hunger and avoiding pain are deeply wired into our brains and bodies. One drives us to seek food. Pain pushes us to take immediate action in an urgent effort to turn off the sensation.
Our drive to avoid loneliness is no different.
Brain research shows that we are equally driven to connect with others to avoid loneliness. Structures like the dorsal raphe nuclei, which lie deep in our brains, were once thought to primarily regulate mood and are important to understanding depression. But, those nuclei do much more. They are also active when we're lonely and when we experience physical pain. These findings suggest that being lonely exerts as powerful a force on our brain and behavior as does being hungry or in physical pain.
We are social creatures.
Our social nature has been fine-tuned over countless generations. In our early years, we are totally dependent upon caregivers for survival. The nature of those early attachments continue to guide and shape the kinds of connections to others that we seek throughout our lives. The patterns of our connections to others have been found to influence the health of our brains along with meaningfully determining our emotional resiliency.
Loneliness is different than being alone.
There are centuries of wisdom teachings that highlight the importance of solitude – of being alone. Consider:
- Learning to enjoy being alone can deepen our love for, and acceptance of ourselves, which in turn can deepen our capacity to love others.
- Being alone is also important to improving our attention and memory abilities by reducing social distractions and training us to quiet our minds.
- Being alone allows for self-reflection and contemplation so that our subsequent choices and actions are made with greater discernment as to what really matters.
- People who learn to be accept and enjoy being alone are people who are less vulnerable to depression or other types of emotional pain.
Being lonely does not require being alone. Loneliness involves confinement in a psychological cage within which our experience of being seen, accepted, wanted or worthy of attention is absent. Many people who’ve come to me as clients describe the despair they feel over being lonely even when surrounded by others – in marriages, in groups, or in other social settings. When feeling deeply lonely, there is also pain and fear: pain arising from the sense of disconnection from others and fear streaming from the belief that real re-connection will not arrive in time.
Reducing loneliness is a responsibility we all share. The “how” of reducing loneliness is rooted in simple acts of human kindness. Thich Nhat Han said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” Here are everyday examples of actions we can take that reduce just a bit the pandemic of loneliness in the world:
- Once a day, send someone a note or text that hasn’t heard from you in a while…just because
- Make a point to not simply say thank you to a clerk, server, cashier or someone performing a social service function. Take the extra step of asking them a question, giving them a compliment, or making an observation that reflects and emphasizes their unique human-ness
- Strengthen your empathy skills by practicing listening intently and with full focus to what another person is saying
- Create the intention to discover what you and the other person(s) have in common, not what divides you
- Cultivate your curiosity about others – practice assuming each person has at least one fascinating feature to their history or their unrealized dreams, listen for it and actively seek to discover it
- Model connection by practicing opening yourself up to someone else by disclosing something of you to them.
For a rousing look at simple efforts to connect with lonely people, check out this article in the NY Times.