The Science Behind: Loneliness


The Science Behind: Loneliness

The definition of loneliness can be subjective depending on the perspective, but it is a feeling that is likely to overtake almost everyone at some point in their lifetime. Human beings are social creatures, so COVID-19 restrictions and mandatory stay-at-home orders have limited socializing and consequently triggered feelings of loneliness for many of us. In other words, the coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the existing loneliness epidemic.  Although loneliness is not officially categorized as a mental disorder, it can be an associated symptom for other disorders. Therefore, scientific insights can provide a broader perspective on the concept of loneliness.  

Scientifically defining loneliness 

John Cacioppo, a pioneer in the study of loneliness, defines loneliness to be an afflicting feeling arising due to the absence of social connections and expectations not being met through social relationships. It is also defined as a “state of hypervigilance originating from our primate ancestors by neuroscientists,” wrote Jill Lepore in her piece on the history of loneliness for the New Yorker magazine. Furthermore, emphasis on terms such as “distressed”, “sad”, “profound” or even “frightening experience” are used in defining loneliness. Loneliness is usually categorized into three major categories – situational loneliness, developmental loneliness and internal loneliness. 

Loneliness is not being alone 

Loneliness and alone are often used interchangeably. However, they hold varying connotations. Alone is associated with solitude which is often “embraced” and does not typically hold negative connotations as with loneliness. The feeling of loneliness is irrespective of the place it can surge in a secluded context, as well as arise in a crowded context. This context is what Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the US Army, defines  as the “feeling of home” , which is related to belonging. Murthy describes loneliness as “the feeling that no place is home.” 

“Loneliness is different from isolation and solitude. Loneliness is a subjective feeling where the connections we need are greater than the connections we have,”  Murthy said. 

Loneliness is not good for your mental and physical health

The “epidemic of loneliness” was first described by Dr. Murthy in 2018. The growing epidemic across major cities worldwide have even led to a Minister of Loneliness in the UK.

 A study on the impact of loneliness on health reported that loneliness can lead to psychological disorders such as depression, personality disorders and Alzheimer’s, and physical disorders such as diabetes or obesity. In Japan, “lonely deaths” or “kodukushi”   happen when people die in isolation–and such deaths are rising at an alarming rate. 

In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, explained the influence of external factors in loneliness. 

“When you are alone, you are more reactive to stresses in your environment, which can lead to problems such as heart diseases,” Holt-Lunstad, said. 

The Loneliness Scale 

Loneliness can be translated into a spectrum called the Loneliness Scale, which has a ranking system that can evaluate an individual’s “state of loneliness.” The Loneliness Scale was developed by University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to measure  perceived feelings of loneliness for an individual. The scale is a spectrum that ranges from “I often feel lonely” to “I sometimes feel lonely” to “I rarely feel lonely” and “I never feel lonely.” 

Combating Loneliness

While social media can act as an immediate refuge for loneliness, it may not entirely help to combat loneliness. The secret to combating loneliness may not be a complex one. The findings from two independent studies conducted by UCLA and the Norwegian University of  Science and Technology , reported that writing down thoughts and emotions can help to alleviate the overwhelming feelings of loneliness. The studies concluded that writing or sometimes drawing can be cathartic, which can in turn activate networks in the brain to reduce feelings of anxiety or sadness and increase cognitive processing. 

Essentially, the key to combating loneliness is pursuing the activities that activate the areas of your brain which will contribute to your well-being. “Just as you make time in your busy schedule to be physically active, you need to make time be socially active,”  Holt-Lunstad said.

The winter term at UW commenced by students navigating their way through LEARN. The highpoint of “university life” is typically associated with being a “social” one – relying predominantly on interactions – whether it’s classes or parties. Another online term is essentially an inevitable elimination of the social aspects of university life, and it can get lonely for many of us. 

If you are lonely, remember that you aren’t alone. 


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