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10 Fascinating Insights Into Loneliness
We’ve all had those days where we just don’t feel like we’re socially connecting with anyone and where the world seems so very big and we’re so very small. Loneliness affects some more than others, and for some people, it can be the start of an endless cycle. It’s even deadly for some animals, but understanding loneliness might help keep you from sinking into the deep, dark hole.
10The Loneliest Place On Earth
So you want to get away from it all—from everything and everyone. Sure, you could head out into the woods, but what if you wanted to be completely, absolutely alone? What’s the loneliest place on Earth?
Point Nemo—if you can get there—is the point on the globe that’s farthest away from any terrestrial organism. It’s in the middle of the South Pacific, between Maher Island off the coast of the Antarctic, Motu Nui near Easter Island, and Ducie Island, an uninhabited island to the north. Point Nemo—named for the Jules Verne character—was only discovered in 1992, when satellite technology was finally good enough to allow us to accurately map coastlines and chart just what point was equidistant from all of them. The point is 2,300 kilometers (1,450 mi) away from each of the islands, making it the loneliest place on Earth.
It’s so lonely that it’s doubtful anyone has ever even been there. No one had ever been to Maher Island until it was discovered in the 1940s. There’s certainly no easy way to get to Point Nemo, and there’s nothing to be found there even if you did make the trip. There’s not even a beacon or a buoy, just more endless ocean and more being alone.
9Feeling Lonely vs. Social Isolation
Humans are very social creatures. We’ve always relied on each other to survive. That reliance on others makes defining loneliness a tricky thing. According to studies done by University College London, there’s a big difference between being lonely and being socially isolated. It’s only when you start to look at loneliness in the context of how socially connected we are that you see how subjective a feeling it really is. There are people that can live miles away from anyone, have little contact with their family, and not be lonely, while other people can live on a busy street, regularly meet for family dinners, have friends they see on a daily basis, and still feel lonely.
That all gets even more tricky when you look at it in the context of the elderly. When researchers wanted to find out which was potentially more dangerous, being lonely or being isolated, they looked at 6,500 men and women aged 52 and older and rated them based on their risk of death over the course of 12 years. They ultimately came to the conclusion that social isolation was potentially more dangerous than just feeling lonely. When they looked at social isolation, they could predict patterns in health and well-being that reports of loneliness didn’t allow them to. In the end, the study found that even if you’re lonely, maintaining social connections was necessary for long-term health.
Homesickness is a particular kind of loneliness we feel when we’re away from home. For some people, it can be crippling. While it’s estimated that about 70 percent of people who move away from home suffer from it in some way, for a smaller percentage, homesickness can mean sinking into the dark pit of depression that they can only crawl out of with help. The most severe cases can come with panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares, and complete withdrawal from the surroundings that are new and completely unsettling.
Homesickness is certainly nothing new, either. It’s described in Homer’s Odyssey, but it was only formally given a name when it was used to describe the feelings of loneliness and longing that Swiss soldiers got when they were far from home. In the 17th century, homesickness was thought to be an incredibly dangerous disease that would kill if left untreated. After that, popular opinion shifted. To be homesick was childish: It was what a grade-schooler felt during his first week at summer camp.
All of that meant that we stopped talking about it. We don’t even know that much about homesickness, save for its very real effects. We know that some things—anything, really—can trigger it, and sometimes the tools we use to try to alleviate homesickness can make it worse. Hop on Facebook to keep in touch with friends back home, and it’s a cold reminder that you’re not there to be in any of the pictures. And now, we’re also starting to think that homesickness never actually goes away—not entirely, at least.
7The Social Surrogacy Hypothesis
Loneliness—and how we deal with it—is a notoriously difficult bit of psychology to explore. It’s only recently that researchers from the University of Buffalo and Miami University have started to explore what they call the “Social Surrogacy Hypothesis.”
The theory basically states that television can act as a surrogate for people who are longing to form meaningful social relationships. The researchers looked at when people turned to their favorite television shows, under what circumstances they tended to watch them, how they wrote about the shows and the characters, and how a person’s current relationship status (including whether they’d just had a fight with a close friend or significant other) impacted their reactions to watching the shows.
They found that people who were lonely, had just experienced a blow to their self-esteem, or had been in an argument were craving social interaction that could be replaced with something called a “parasocial” relationship. That’s the relationship that develops between us and our favorite television characters when we become so invested in their lives that our brains view them as something of a close friend. We worry about them, we wait to find out what happens next, and we take it all very personally. The more lonely we are, the stronger that connection, and the more likely we are to be satisfied by these one-sided relationships.
6Loneliness Killed The Woolly Mammoth
There’s something incredibly heartbreaking about being among the last surviving handful of an entire species, and we’ve recently found out that that’s exactly what happened to the woolly mammoth.
After two huge population declines, the last of the woolly mammoths lived on an island off the Russian coast. For 6,000 years, a tiny pocket of woolly mammoths scraped out a living on the rugged island. Without enough diversity in the population, they slowly got more inbred, and the species made its final decline. It’s estimated that after the second major population decline, which killed off the mainland population and all but 300–1,000 island-dwelling individuals, the population was never able to recover.
The island-dwelling mammoths were cut off from their mainland cousins by the rising sea levels that created their island and ultimately condemned the last surviving members to an incredibly lonely death. While the species recovered from the first population drop over the course of about 100,000 years, the isolation and inbreeding ultimately led to their extinction. Scientists still aren’t sure just what happened to the mainland population, but with the discovery of the complete mammoth genome, they’ve learned just how inbred the final members of the species really were.
5Loneliness Makes Us See Inanimate Objects Differently
Researchers from Dartmouth College have found that extended periods of loneliness change the way we start to see inanimate objects. When we’re craving human contact and socialization, we start to have a slightly different relationship with things like online avatars and dolls—especially those with human faces. When subjects were shown photos of morphs that had varying degrees of human and animated features, those that were lonely were more likely to describe the faces as completely human.
The study even showed a pronounced difference in how our mood impacts our ability to see faces. Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire, then given feedback on what their answers suggested about their future. Feedback was completely random (even though students didn’t know it). Those students that were given a prediction of a lonelier future were also more likely to see more human faces.
This impact can also be extended into the territory of the “uncanny valley” effect. Typically, we have a tendency to view animated people and robots who are too lifelike as creepy and unsettling. That reaction is partially negated in lonely people, though, who tend to find artificial faces more attractive.
4Electric Shock Is Preferable To 15 Minutes Of Loneliness
Imagine, for a minute, that you have nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no one to talk to. Your assigned task is to just sit in a room and think. Daydream. Imagine. Whatever you like, as long as it’s in your own head. Sound awesome? Psychologists from Harvard University and University of Virginia conducted a series of 11 studies that demonstrated something pretty surprising. For most of us, it’s not awesome at all, and we’d rather be doing anything else—even if the only thing available to us hurts.
They tested people between the ages of 18 and 77 and asked them to sit in a room for periods of anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. Regardless of age, the results were much the same: People found it hard to think, hard to concentrate, completely unenjoyable, and insanely difficult. Those that were put in a room with no outlet for entertainment outside of their own head found themselves restless and distracted, unable to concentrate. When they were in their own homes, most of them couldn’t do it at all and cheated by playing music or playing with a cell phone.
The experiment got epic when the only thing the subjects were given was a button that would administer an electric shock to them when they pushed it. Even though most people stated they would pay money to avoid being shocked before the experiment started, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women were so overcome by the lack of sensory input that they found shocking themselves preferable to the lonely sensation of being inside their own heads for only 15 minutes.
3Loneliness Spreads Like A Disease
By now, we’ve watched enough shows and movies about the zombie apocalypse to know that it spreads across the world like a disease. Loneliness does, too.
Researchers from the University of Chicago looked at exactly how loneliness spreads, and they found that like the spread of a nasty germ, it all starts with a nasty encounter. Say you’re already feeling pretty down, and a friend makes an offhand comment or does something that makes you uncomfortable. If you were in a better mood, you might not have even noticed it, but as it is, it strikes right at the heart of your gloomy day. When you get home, you remember that. It sticks with you, and the next time you might have called your friend to go grab a drink after work, you don’t. From your friend’s point of view, you stopped calling them. That leads to the crumbling of a friendship and puts them in the same mood you were in when they accidentally offended you.
Sounds far-fetched? It’s not. Lonely people can unintentionally make themselves lonelier by anticipating actions that are going to hurt them. In turn, this makes them drift to the social fringes. In a study of 5,000 subjects, researchers looked at how lonely people felt on particular days and their social interactions for those days. They found that loneliness is contagious to the third degree. People who are chronically lonely have been found to transmit that to other acquaintances, who then go on to similarly drift to the outskirts of their social groups as that network unravels.
This might have some very concrete implications for the treatment of mental illness, depression, and chronic loneliness. Knowing how social networks impact each other can allow people to become more proactive in mending relationships before they start to unravel and before loneliness leads to a post-apocalyptic mental wasteland.
2Comfort Food Fights Loneliness
What’s that favorite food that you always requested for your birthday? How about that special anniversary dinner? The meal that mom made when she knew you were going through a tough time? There’s a reason it’s called comfort food, and it’s been found that just thinking about it has a very real impact on our loneliness.
A study done at the University of Buffalo asked participants to write about a fight they’d had with someone they loved, in order to set a baseline of anxiety, sadness, and a threatened social status. Afterward, they were asked to either write about their favorite comfort food or a new food that they’d like to try. When they were asked to rate their loneliness after that, those that wrote about their comfort food felt significantly less lonely.
Another study had students eat chicken soup, then fill missing letters into words. Those that ate chicken soup and considered it one of their comfort foods were more likely to use letters that spelled out relationship-centric words. On the other hand, those that didn’t consider chicken soup as comfort food (or weren’t given the soup) created words that were not related to social interaction or relationships.
That all seems to suggest that comfort food—even if we’re just thinking about it—has a profound impact on our emotional state.
1Brains Of Lonely People Work Differently
It’s been shown that the brains of lonely people are visibly different from the brains of those who don’t suffer from chronic loneliness.
An admittedly small study conducted by the University of Chicago focused on people whose answers to a questionnaire identified them as socially isolated and lonely. When these people were shown pictures of others enjoying themselves, there was less activity in the part of the brain that typically reacts to rewards and pleasure. Researchers weren’t sure if the lack of activity in the brain led to feelings of loneliness or if prolonged social isolation had conditioned the brain to respond in a way that was likely to increase their isolation. Nevertheless, researchers are certain that it has the potential to be a major breakthrough—and one that couldn’t come at a better time. With more people having increasingly smaller families, it’s estimated that the number of people living alone will continue to climb. Knowing just how our brains are programmed may go a long way in helping those who suffer from chronic loneliness.
Loneliness has also been shown to impact how we process cold temperatures. A study from the University of Toronto found that when participants were asked to recount a situation in which they were isolated from a social group reported that the temperature in the room was, on average, much colder than those that were asked to talk about a time they were included in a group setting. Researchers also ran another experiment in which a group of people played catch, with some people being excluded more than others. Those that were excluded were more likely to gravitate toward hot drinks after the game. This suggests that we pick a hot cup of tea or coffee—or our favorite chicken soup—because of a quite literal cold feeling we get from isolation. Researchers go on to state that they suspect this link forms in us during infancy, where babies associate warmth with social interaction.
+Animals Can Die From Loneliness
We think loneliness is a pretty sad feeling, and there are always going to be those cynical people that insist animals don’t have the same feelings. But we know that’s not true—and we can prove it.
A study of the effects of social isolation and loneliness on African gray parrots found something pretty heartbreaking. Telomeres are sections of DNA that are responsible for regulating the stability of chromosomes. As birds get older, their age is reflected in the length of the telomeres. Nine-year-old parrots who were kept in cages alone had the same telomere structures as socialized birds that were 23 years old, showing that the stress of isolation and loneliness is so real that it degrades the genetic makeup of birds at a staggering rate.
And recently, researchers have found another animal that suffers absolute agony from loneliness: the ant. Research from the University of Tokyo found that separating a single ant from its colony leaves it with a lifespan that’s reduced by 91 percent, for a pretty bizarre reason. An ant that’s alone is incapable of digesting its food. While ants regurgitate and share food in their nest, a single ant will simply pace back and forth and store its undigested food . . . until it dies from loneliness.