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According to a report recently released in this “merry, merry month of May”, there is mounting evidence of loneliness among Americans. Cigna conducted a survey of 20,000 adults 18 years of age and older using the UCLA loneliness scale and found that more than half are considered lonely[1].  The reason for the health service company’s interest in the subject of loneliness is made clear in the cover letter that accompanies the report–“Approximately 1 in 6 adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental health condition, and research has noted that mental health issues are one of the most rapidly increasing causes of long-term sick leave. When examining the different issues affecting people with mental health conditions, there is a consistent part of the pathology: they also suffer from loneliness.”  The upshot is that loneliness may be a key contributing factor in the rising costs of employee absenteeism and associated mental health issues.  The letter goes on to note that ““Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity”.    

By clarifying the problem that companies face, presumably Cigna hopes to help solve it.  As someone who experienced loneliness for a long time and then successfully emerged from it, I would like to offer my insights into the subject with similar hopes.  In this three-part blog, I will explore the origins of loneliness, discuss the characteristics of true connection to others and highlight some approaches on how to develop more of them.  Let’s start by defining what loneliness is and acknowledging how awful loneliness can be.

Loneliness is a complex concept that is the subject of academic investigation across disciplines. While researchers go to great lengths to define it comprehensively, I’ll accept the expediency of a simple definition for now. Loneliness is the painful awareness of one’s non-elective separation from others.   The negative effects of even transient social isolation are so powerful, they serve as the basis for two forms of legal punishment practiced daily across America- solitary confinement for non-compliant prisoners and time-outs for misbehaving children.    Whether these disciplinary tactics are more effective than damaging in the long run is debatable but either outcome supports the belief that humans are hard-wired with deep needs for attachment to other human beings.  Research has shown that the stress response associated with non-elective separation from others is truly painful.

From brain imaging studies, and a meta-analysis of published research, Ethan Kross et al. were the first to show and suggest that “…the distress elicited in response to intense social rejection may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain[2].  As a biologist, I am not surprised. From an evolutionary stand point, the primitive pain associated with separation likely conferred a selective advantage upon humans by serving as a strong signal motivating the return to the safety of a family or group. While the phrase “survival of the fittest” implies success through direct competition of individuals for food, water and mates, human beings actually rose to the top of the food chain through by cooperating with each other and successfully competing with other species.  But competition may actually help sustain cooperation.

While the strongest individuals can drive off the weaker ones in order to sequester the necessary resources to survive and reproduce, the stressful sensations of loneliness experienced by those rejected, may have been nature’s way of motivating them to go back and cooperate, creating a “win-win” for the survival of the species.  This would suggest that those who felt the pain of non-elective separation more strongly, may have sought to avoid it by more successful methods of seeking communal connections.  Those individuals, and their genetic-profile, survived as a result.  And the experiences of loneliness may have had different effects on males and females.

Given that women require more resources than their male counterparts to produce and provide for their young (i.e. more energy is required for internal gestation and lactation), loneliness may have created an even greater selective pressure for women in protecting their offspring.  Similarly, the “feel-good” aspects of attachment in the mother-infant relationship appear to have extended to attachments formed through cooperation with other adults.   Connections that supported the survival of species were preserved in the primitive emotional “carrots” that counter the “sticks” of loneliness and together may have created a greater combined reward for women and hence a higher return for the species survival.  Differential parent investments may be important in other behavior phenotypes. The biology of human reproduction provides women with maternal certainty and men with paternal uncertainty.  Women know that they are the mothers of their children whereas in earlier times, before DNA testing, fathers could not be certain that offspring were theirs.  This may have played into how offspring were protected.

For example, the rewards of cooperation in men have enabled the evolution of stronger aggressive tendencies.  To gather resources for themselves and their groups, it is generally accepted that men have a greater willingness to fight, dominate, exploit or exterminate others than women do.  There is research that supports this “Male-Warrior Hypothesis” and the idea that cooperation in men manifests in warrior like behavior which in turn benefits more broadly the community groups they protect. In one study, researchers found that “…men contributed more to their group if their group was competing with other groups than if there was no intergroup competition. Female cooperation was relatively unaffected by intergroup competition.” [3]  These thoughts have implications for understanding loneliness in our modern culture and putative gender differences that may be relevant in discussing solutions.

Taken together, these ideas suggest that the positive feelings associated with connection, attachment and affiliation provided a selective advantage in the evolution of human behavior.  The emotional rewards of cooperation improved our access to the resources we needed to survive by positively affecting the way we feel towards each other when we connect.  We became emotionally co-invested in the outcome of others because it served our inherent inclinations to survive as a species. Similarly, loneliness may have enhanced our survival by signaling the dangers of disconnection, detachment and marginalization.  Our corresponding cognitive capabilities allowed us to connect the dots so we could choose to cooperate and innovate.  Unfortunately, what we have created over the last century has greatly confused us and is challenging our collective mental health.

Although these statements are oversimplifications of the complex biological and psychological underpinnings tied to the evolution of human behavior, they can serve as a useful starting point for examining the circumstances of loneliness in our modern society. The main point I want to make is that the causes of our current loneliness crisis are distinctly different than the evolutionary circumstances that may have led to the selective advantage that loneliness originally conferred.  In the next two parts of this blog series, I will discuss the nature of human connection and suggest how one can go about creating healthy relationships that produce the type of attachments and affiliations, that sadly, most Americans seem to be missing.  Trust me.  There is hope for everyone who is suffering.

[1] https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdfc

[2] Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, Tor D.Wager

“Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2011, 108 (15) 6270-6275

[3] Mark Van Vugt, David De Cremer, Dirk P. Janssen

“Gender Differences in Cooperation and Competition-The Male-Warrior Hypothesis”

Psychological Science (2017) Volume: 18 issue: 1, page(s): 19-23