In previous articles I've discussed how important it is to your well-being that you have adequate social support, but personal and social factors can make that a challenging task.
Research shows that as many as 80% of young people feel lonely, struggling as they do to find acceptance in social groups. Loneliness generally decreases into middle age, only to increase again as people enter old age and social support networks begin to dissolve. Overall, between 15% and 30% of the population feels lonely chronically.
However, it's a mistake to think that loneliness only exists for young people who haven't found their place in the world yet, or older people with dwindling social networks and opportunities to form new relationships.
Loneliness depends on whether you feel that your social needs are being met, not whether they outwardly appear to be. There are some people who don't feel lonely despite having what would appear to be inadequate social support, and others who do feel lonely despite having many people in their lives.
It's the answers to questions like these (from the UCLA Loneliness Scale) that determine whether you feel lonely:
- How often do you feel "in tune" with the people around you?
- How often do you feel that you have a lot in common with the people around you?
- How often do you feel that there are people who really understand you?
- How often do you feel left out?
Not coincidentally, these questions go to the heart of whether you are merely in close physical proximity to other human beings or are having your deepest social needs met—things like being supported without being controlled, and being recognized and accepted as a unique individual.
Why is social connection so important?
Just like ants, bees, dolphins, and monkeys, humans are a social species. Our brains are wired to detect similarities and differences between ourselves and others, observe and interpret verbal and nonverbal cues, and place people into categories that help us manage the task of navigating a vast, complex society.
Humans may well be the ultimate social animals in that, as far as we can tell, we are the only species capable of what's called "meta-cognition," or the ability to think about our thoughts. This gives us the capacity to ponder our internal world and experience of the external world, realize that others have the same capacity, and compare our perspectives through interaction.
Our views of ourselves and the world are intimately connected by meta-cognitive transactions with the rest of humanity. The structure and organization of our brain functions screams "social."
Loneliness—the perception that you aren't participating in all of this relatedness with everyone else—can expose you to the consequences of social isolation that I've covered elsewhere: higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and mortality in general, and increases in blood pressure and cortisol (the "stress hormone"). Loneliness also increases depressive symptoms, anxiety, anger, and pessimism, and lowers self-esteem. This is not a comprehensive list by any means.
The absence of social connection seems to trigger a breakdown of the human body and mind. Indeed, prominent loneliness researchers like Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo liken loneliness to "the social equivalent of pain, hunger and thirst; the pain of social disconnection and the hunger and thirst for social connection motivate the maintenance and formation of social connections necessary for the survival of our genes."
It's no surprise that things can seem so dreary—desolate, even—when you're lonely. That's what it feels like to be disconnected from a fundamental aspect of your existence.
Hawkley and Cacioppo have developed an interesting model of the mechanics of loneliness. Essentially, they believe that since you're hardwired to feel safe in numbers, you feel vulnerable on a very primitive level and become hypervigilant for threat when you don't have your social needs met.
This causes you feel that world is a more threatening place, so you tend to attribute malicious motives to others and generally have a more pessimistic attitude about social connection. Acting on these beliefs means distancing yourself from new potential relationships and engaging in subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors that drive people away. The result is the perpetuation of loneliness.
Breaking the cycle
If perceived isolation is a self-reinforcing cycle of experience, thoughts, beliefs, and actions, then it stands to reason that intervention at one of those points could help to break it.
Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy include the identification and challenging of the "faulty" thoughts and beliefs that underlie the problem. Other ways to work with loneliness include intervening directly at the "actions" level. For instance, in social skills training people learn how to communicate effectively and appropriately in different situations.
In other articles, I've suggested approaches to cultivating improved social health that include practicing compassion for others, attempting to connect with others from your most authentic self, and working backward by determining the kind of life you'd like to have and then deliberately seeking out those with values and goals aligned with it.
Another approach is to address the realm of social cognition, which has to do with how we perceive, understand, and respond to others' emotions, thought processes, intentions, and actions.
Like cognitive-behavioral therapy, these approaches include examining one's own thoughts and beliefs. But some researchers are now developing more integrative approaches in which participants practice gauging others' emotional states by looking at pictures of people, imagining themselves in their situation, and considering what they might be thinking and feeling. In other words, practicing empathy.
They also may include exercises that help participants learn how to pay close attention to nonverbal cues such as eye contact and posture, and observe how their own emotions might influence their own thoughts and behaviors. Studies of these interventions have so far yielded promising results in improving social functioning and reducing feelings of loneliness.*
Social cognition is not just a subset of basic cognition, but a distinct type of cognition that bridges the gap between the way we think and the way we function socially in the world, and it's proving to be a bigger determinant of loneliness than basic cognition.
It has more to do with having an embodied understanding of the social domain from which to act than just having the ability to explain relationship dynamics to someone. So, maybe the effectiveness of these newer approaches has to do with embracing the interrelatedness of internal experience, thoughts, behaviors, and actions in our interactions with others.
The mindfulness connection
If that's the case, then mindfulness meditation may be another approach to consider. In mindful awareness practices we emphasize paying attention to your moment-to-moment experience, including internal emotional and mental activity and, when in dialogue with other people, attuning to them and the shifting dynamics of your interaction as well.
Mindfulness is also inherently, even when unintentionally, therapeutic in nature in that it helps to expand the space between what is happening and what might be an automatic reaction to it—whether it be a thought or behavior—that has become habitual over time. That way, new, more helpful, healthier ones can emerge. Within those spaces are more opportunities to break the loneliness cycle.
As of this writing, only one study has attempted to explore specifically whether mindfulness practice can help with loneliness, and it yielded promising results. In it, older adults who attended a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program reported significantly reduced feelings of loneliness, and also displayed reduced expression of inflammatory genes (which are another sign of loneliness).
It should be noted that MBSR doesn't target social cognition; it is a very general course of mindfulness practice. In fact, the results of MBSR are usually similar to those for people who practice mindfulness meditation in a variety of ways, without any particular treatment goal.**
As with your life as a whole, the social domain of it is multidimensional and unique, and having a fulfilling one isn't a one-size-fits all matter. You have many options you can choose and combine to achieve greater social well-being; now you might add mindfulness meditation practice to the list.
The next time you find yourself thirsting for social connection, you could try staying right where you are and sitting with it for a bit. (And if you click here, I'll sit with you.)
* The two particular social cognition-focused interventions I've linked to here, Social Cognition and Interaction Training and Social Cognitive Skills Training, are being studied for use with people with schizophrenia, for a good reason. Even when their symptoms have improved, people with schizophrenia often have impaired social functioning that is stubbornly resistant to other treatment approaches. Other research has found promising results for similar approaches with other populations.
** Another key aspect of mindfulness meditation is acceptance of your experience—whether it be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is not addressed in social cognition interventions, and it carries a potential fringe benefit. Cultivating acceptance of the feelings that arise from social isolation by turning toward them with curiosity can help reduce your aversion to them and hence, your suffering about them.