There's no denying it. Modern life leaves many of us grappling with loneliness. These days we often live farther away from loved ones, spend more of our time commuting (alone) and working (in isolation), remain single or divorced and have fewer children than people did even 50 years ago. But humans are social creatures; we simply aren't designed for so much alone time.
The negative impacts of loneliness and social isolation on not just psychological, but also physical, health have received consistent media attention in the last five years. The UK is taking the loneliness epidemic so seriously that a Minister of Loneliness was appointed this year to ensure appropriate action is taken to address this public health threat.
And for good reason. A meta-analysis of the magnitude of social isolation and loneliness published in 2015 found that social isolation and loneliness are significant predictors of early death, on par with other well established risk factors like obesity.
The NPR podcast Hidden Brain's most recent episode, "The Lonely American Man," discussed how constructions of modern masculinity both promote social isolation and foster stigma around taking action to remedy loneliness. In my opinion, it's this attitude that loneliness is a pain to be suffered, well, alone that is truly damaging and dangerous.
Social isolation, like lack of hydration or cold temperatures, is a problematic condition that, in extreme doses, can actually threaten our survival. Until relatively recently, if you had no community with whom you could band together and pool resources, your chances of surviving would have been slim. As thirst is the warning alarm motivating one to drink water, the emotion of loneliness is the warning alarm that social interaction is needed.
Loneliness is a powerful signal. It really, physically hurts. I've experienced loneliness so painful it has literally brought me to my knees, sobbing in a way no physical injury has ever done. To put it clinically, these behaviors of crying and collapsing are supposed to compel others to notice you, engage with you. But if you're alone and no one witnesses your loneliness, how will anyone ever know? Or if those around you aren't emotionally attuned themselves and don't engage, the loneliness may feel even worse. Loneliness as a biologically adaptive alarm and warning signal is fairly sophisticated, but it's not foolproof.
Some think that the role of mental health therapy is to provide immediate relief from social isolation. I agree that it is...at first. Therapists have the skills to provide the kind of social interaction needed to soothe the most painful loneliness alarms.
But after that, there's more work to do to address the underlying issue of social isolation so that it doesn't continue to harm the health and well being of our clients. Therapists can help explore what's going on in a person's day-to-day life that's contributing to isolation and a lack of meaningful relationships. What beliefs and habits are interfering with getting our social needs met? How can we think differently about our loneliness and need for others?
It's important work to do for those of us who want to thrive in 21st century life.