By J.C. Williamson
Loneliness. The word alone evokes a sad yearning that we’ve all experienced. Lately, though, the depth and breadth of loneliness have expanded, as medical and scientific researchers delve into the health consequences of those who live apart from others, for whatever reasons.
Their revelations have been shocking: Loneliness has now emerged as the most significant threat to healthful longevity there is. It surpasses even heart disease. It is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
And you thought sitting too much was unhealthy? Now, it’s don’t do it alone.
You may also have thought that being alone was quite different from being lonely. After all, many of us choose a minimally socialized lifestyle, if not solitude. So this black swan warning — that simply living alone is hazardous to one’s health —is alarming and difficult to accept. It’s hard to get one’s head around the concept that feeling lonely is not required — the prolonged separation from others is what takes the heavy toll.
In a TEDxTalk entitled “The Lethality of Loneliness,” John Cacioppo, cofounder of the field of social neuroscience, observed: “We think of loneliness as a sad condition, but for social species, being on the social perimeter is not only sad, it’s dangerous.”
In short, alone is alone. We humans are hard-wired for social interdependence. Whether we personally feel the need for connectedness or not, our inherent physiology predisposes us toward interaction, and this basic need manifests in a complex array of behavioral signs.
Being on one’s own triggers self-preservation mode, as even the most enthusiastic and willing loners perceive existential threats at an unconscious level. Thus, negativity and defensiveness increase. Stress and sleep difficulties are common. Depression is more likely. Empathy and compassion decrease. And harmful self-medication is an all too frequent response.
“Living with loneliness increases your odds of an early death by 45%,” as Cacioppo reiterates.
That’s no problem for those with the desire and ability to socialize — for the rest of us, not so much. But take heart. Our intrinsic human need for connectedness is a malleable reality, with many possible avenues.
In other words, joiners will join, but loners are not obliged. Being connected does not require one to mingle, chat, do lunch or join a club. It doesn’t have to be intensely personal; just finding access to a reliable support system is a step toward inclusion. Technology also offers innumerable options, still from a distance, yet effective. Volunteering may provide other ways of connecting on a variety of levels.
The take-away seems to be awareness — especially if isolation has become your comfort zone.
This may explain some of the growing interest in a local life-plan community that would permit Humboldt seniors to live together while maintaining their own lives.
“Life Plan Humboldt would enable independence and privacy,” said Humboldt resident Gail Popham, “but also opportunity for socialization, personal growth, community involvement and intellectual stimulation in a setting that is safer, more secure, more environmentally responsible and more economically dependable than living alone in a house.”
For every one of us, connectedness means different things. Just as loneliness is a spectrum, ranging from choosing to live a solitary life to enduring unwanted isolation, the ways in which we can nurture our human needs vary widely.