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From the moment of conception, our lives and the quality of them, are linked to the lives of other people. Human development progresses from full dependence on non-elective family relationships (we don’t get to choose our parents) to inter-dependence in elective social relationships (we do pick our friends, mates and workplaces).  Contrary to what some believe, we never really live independently from others.  We are simply not equipped biologically to reproduce, survive, or thrive, on our own.  We are genetically programmed to connect with others and vulnerable to loneliness as a result.  In Part 1 of this blog series, I noted that the experience of loneliness conferred a selective advantage in human evolution suggesting that non-elective separation from others to whom we are connected, is painful and motivates a return to the safety of others.  In the past, loneliness resulted from the loss of existing close connections but the rising loneliness captured in the recent CignaÒ survey[1] may indicate a chronic failure to develop and maintain satisfying relationships in the first place.  The advantage that cooperation conferred to humans in meeting their physiological needs, ultimately created a rudimentary need for relationships.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Amy Banks[2], there are four primary neural pathways that are responsible for the patterns we form in adult connections and she declares “..the human brain is built to operate within a network of caring human relationships”.  She and other practitioners make the argument that “..human beings don’t mature by separating.  Instead, they grow toward greater and greater relational complexity.”  For many thousands of years, close proximity and connection to others was an inherent part of communal living.  According to cultural anthropologists, community size across the globe has been universally constrained to ~150 people by the capacity that humans have for cooperating through the currency of reciprocal care and that high-level intimacy relationships are restricted to 5-15 because of the time and energy required to support them[3].

However, changes brought about by division of labor, innovation and industrialization have led to greater geographical mobility, more separation and distance between the generations of families and the overall progressive uncoupling of having our psychological needs met through the fulfilling of our physiological ones.  Fast paced, transactional living has replaced slower and smaller scale, relational living as the cultural norm.  As a result, our standard of living- the access to goods and services we can purchase to survive- has increased but the way we feel about our lives- our quality of living- has begun to decline.  Our psychological needs have become separate entities and what it takes to fulfil them, can only be “bought” with the currency of time and an emotional co-investment in the well-being of others.  In modern American life, relationship building is more intentional and active than it needed to be in earlier times.

Our childhood experiences with care and connection greatly influence our desire and capacity to form bonds in elective relationships throughout adult life.  From this perspective, the concept of healthy self-interest can be introduced as the cognitive awareness of the need to balance the advantages of acting directly to fulfill one’s own immediate needs through the products and services produced by strangers, with the longer-term benefits of supporting, and being able to rely upon, relationships with people we get to know.  This definition represents a paradigm shift from viewing self- interest as a continuum from selfish to selfless- “me” versus “others”- to one of “self-other” balance – “me alone” versus “me in relationship with others”.  In this new paradigm, pathological self-interest manifests in the inability to develop and maintain satisfying relationships and ultimately, in chronic loneliness.    But what exactly does healthy self-interest foster?  If loneliness represents failure, what does success look like?  What single word describes the feeling that is the opposite of lonely?

Loneliness is usually accompanied by another emotional state- anxiety, boredom, fatigue, or depression.  These secondary emotional states help to identify which form of support is missing from relationships- calming care or energizing stimulation.  For example, when I was a child, my family provided a safe, sustaining and secure home base to return to after I spent hours roaming around playing with the neighborhood boys.  My loneliness back then stemmed from a lack of friends who liked to think and talk about things I was interested in- the budding biologist and sociologist in me got bored without rapid paced, intellectual exchanges.   However, when I got married and moved away from my family, I found myself missing the proximity of people who were as emotionally invested in my well-being as I was in theirs.  Without any respite from the responsibility of work and raising kids, I felt tired and lonely. Then over the years when my parents became seriously ill, I was worried and lonely. Although my husband and I had some friends, neighbors and colleagues that we socialized with, I did not feel anyone cared about me in the way my parents had nor did I feel accepted and energized in the same way that rough housing with my childhood friends, or having an intellectually stimulating study session in college, once did.

What I was missing was the feeling of attachment.  As adults, we seek to replace the attachments we had, or wished we’d had, with our parents.  Our universal human need for a secure, safe home base, persists and drives us to protect ourselves as adults through romantic relationships and other strong social ties.  Those social ties form over time by in-person interactions and strengthen as vulnerabilities are revealed, recognized and responded to with respect.  Attachments are the emotional product of a healthy relationship, one in which both people recognize the mutual benefit of their investment in the well-being of the other.  Together they share a responsibility for the relationship and through their actions demonstrate that the other person matters.  This concept extends to the organizational level meaning that employees can form attachments to co-workers and even their workplace.  Attachment is the enduring emotional bond that keeps people invested over time and space.   Non-elective separation from people with whom we have such attachments can feel acutely painful.  Failing to develop strong attachments in adulthood can feel like a draining, dull ache.

The desperation that comes from a desire to form connections and an inability to succeed despite a person’s best efforts can lead to depression.  Untangling from loneliness looks impossible if one becomes entrenched in an increasingly pessimistic view, one that renowned positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman describes in interpreting negative relational experiences as “personal, permanent and pervasive”[4]. A corresponding belief develops — “everything is my fault and always will be”—which manifests in giving up on relationships or feeling a higher level of responsibility for the outcome of relationships. That trait tends to attract people who don’t feel as much responsibility for relationships.  Relationships that form with this pairing of “self-other” imbalances are generally not satisfying for either person.  Healthy attachments do not arise without healthy self-interest so loneliness and depression can persist even when people are in relationships.

Finally, men and women may experience loneliness differently, including their willingness to admit to feeling lonely as well as the nature of their expectations in relationships and the role relationships play in the workplace.  The “repurposing” of gender- specific adaptations that arose under one set of conditions may manifest in differences in behavior and feelings in our current social environment.  Examining this is important, not to make judgments, but because rising loneliness is a problem that eventually impacts all of us.  In Part 3 of this blog series, I will explore behaviors that both foster and inhibit connection.  Hopefully you, or someone you know, can learn something that will help to turn a lonely life into an uplifting one.


[2] Banks, Amy. Wired to Connect. New York, Penguin Random House LLC, 2015

[3] Sutcliffe, Alistair, et al. Relationships and the social brain: Integrating psychological and evolutionary perspectives. British Journal of Psychology, 103, 149-168 (2012).

[4] Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned Optimism. New York, Knopf