In “The Growing Problem of Loneliness” published earlier this year in The Lancet, two neurologists from the University of Chicago highlight a counter-intuitive feature of loneliness:
“Loneliness has been associated with objective social isolation, depression, introversion, or poor social skills. However, studies have shown these characterizations are incorrect, and that loneliness is a unique condition in which an individual perceives himself or herself to be socially isolated even when among other people. Furthermore, human longitudinal studies and animal models indicate that the deleterious effects of loneliness are not attributable to some peculiarity of individuals who are lonely, instead they are due to the effects of loneliness on ordinary people.”
In other words, loneliness is not necessarily about being physically alone; the effects can be felt even when we are surrounded by other people. Many young people who have experienced chronic loneliness know this to be true, yet deny the possibility of their loneliness because they come in contact other human beings regularly.
According to the researchers, the effects of loneliness include feeling “irritable, depressed, and self-centered,” and are associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. A third of people in industrialized countries are affected, with one in 12 affected severely. Interestingly enough, common-sense solutions such as social skills training and increased social contact are not effective at combating high levels of loneliness. If more interactions with people is not the cure, what could it be?
Like many people, I easily fall into self-isolating habits. There’s no reason to leave my apartment if I have enough food and entertainment to last all week, right? Nonetheless, the research hit home for me because it reveals how loneliness is a mental affliction as much as (or even more than) a physical state. There is a direct correlation between depression and loneliness, yet loneliness never occurred to me as something I was experiencing. I was not cooped up in a nursing home or otherwise barred from seeing other people, and as a result, I didn’t register myself as lonely. College was supposed to be the opposite of loneliness, where you are constantly meeting new people and being exposed to interesting social events. Nonetheless, I tended to feel detached from others for long periods of time. Entering and engaging with a supportive community thus became a crucial aspect of maintaining my mental health.