Anyone can feel lonely, even when surrounded by friends, and loneliness is on the up. How can we curb its devastating effect on people's mental and physical health?
By Moya Sarner
IMAGINE you are a zookeeper and it’s your job to design an enclosure for humans. What single feature would best ensure the health and well-being of the animals in your care? Appropriate access to food and water? Shelter?
The thought experiment has only one answer, according to social neuroscientist John Cacioppo who proposed it. The enclosure, above all else, must take into account our need for connection with other humans.
We are an “obligatorily gregarious species”, in Cacioppo’s words. Yet if so, this is not how many of us live today. We are often far from our families, in homes where we are the sole occupant, socialising, working and shopping online.
This can have a serious downside: a gnawing feeling of loneliness to which most of us can be prone, regardless of age or stage of life. We’re just beginning to understand what serious consequences that can have. Loneliness changes the brain, taking hold of our thoughts and behaviours in ways that are likely to make us feel even more isolated. But its effects are not just psychological; they are also physical. Left unchecked, loneliness can have a physiological impact as detrimental to longevity as smoking or obesity.
“I’d always thought of loneliness as a nuisance, not one of the most toxic environmental conditions we can possibly encounter,” says Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the effect of the environment on our genes. If that sounds gloomy, the new insights also offer perspectives on how to tackle this notoriously intractable social phenomenon – and make each of us less lonely, too.