A recent psychotherapy patient, Ms. A., tells me that she's felt lonely throughout her life. Her intimate relationships have been brief; her friends, few. In recent years she's been suffering from one physical ailment after another. Another patient, Mr. B, has an active social life with friends and business associates, a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this socially full life, he complains of feeling lonely "right in the midst of everyone around me." He, too, suffers from frequent illness.
Some new research finds that loneliness can harm your immune system and set the stage for a range of illness. Of course, our mind/body/spirit is all one. Each "part" affects each other "part," so that's no surprise. But there's a lot more to the story. People like Ms. A and Mr. B appear different, yet are alike in other ways. That is, some people's loneliness reflects an absence of positive relationships. That, in turn, may be rooted in long-term emotional issues that interfere with forming and maintaining relationships. Yet others have a full social life but feel lonely anyway. These apparently different situations raise a question: What promotes or creates the conditions for loneliness in today's society? And, what would help alleviate the painful isolation and disconnection that some feel, regardless of the extent of their social connections?
The mind/body/spirit unity that's visible in the findings that loneliness harms your immune system is, itself, embedded within an even larger context: our social and cultural norms, including the values and aspirations we absorb and follow in our relationships, life goals, and careers. This larger context plays a less visible role in why some experience loneliness in their lives, whether they have diminished social skills or maintain socially connected, outward lives.
To explain, first look at what the new research discovered: Conducted at Ohio State University, and summarized in detail here, it found that loneliness, assessed by the UCLA Loneliness Scale, impacts the body like physical stress. It weakens the immune system, increases sensitivity to physical pain, and creates depression and fatigue. Moreover, it can generate inflammation throughout the body, leading to a range of health risks. In short, feeling lonely creates greater stress just in daily living, which can hurt your immune system.
Some loneliness reflects the residue of trauma or conflict in people's early attachments to parents or parent figures. But, as a recent study found, those who avoid or are unable to form intimate relationships as adults aren't necessarily "loners" or innately dysfunctional. Rather they may be trying to fulfill a psychologically healthy desire for validation and affirmation, crucial for positive development. But the absence of that fulfillment in childhood may lead them to seek it inappropriately from prospective partners as adults. They may become disappointed when they don't receive this "parenting," and then withdraw, leaving them lonely and isolated.
The point is that their psychological aim is a positive striving for human connection, though it may remain unconscious and expressed in dysfunctional ways. But similarly, the person who feels lonely despite extensive relationships may also yearn for healthy, authentic intimacy and connection; a sense of being on the same wavelength with others in meaningful relationships. But that may be absent, given the limitations and superficiality of a conventional, successful life, which includes norms of seeking self-worth via money, power and position -- external and endless pursuits. Add to that the norms of jockeying for control, manipulation and game-playing in intimate relationships. There, we learn to treat relationships as commodities and, in essence, equate love with performance and conquest rather than intimate connection and mutuality.
All of these social and cultural forces impact one's psychology. For some more sensitive to that impact, they may experience increasing loneliness vs. meaningful connection. The problem is that such social conditioning reinforces seeking external validation of self-worth and self-esteem. That sets up an endless quest for "more": More power, more material possessions, more recognition from others. You then become vulnerable to the anxiety that you will discover you have -- or are -- "less than" someone else, by those criteria. That's inevitable. And that's a short step to feeling isolated or lonely, even if you have many social connections.
Certainly, if you're socially isolated, trying to meet new people or learning to improve your social skills might help. But everything that's external will change and fade with time. Your position, your possessions, your friends and family, even. Identifying with "having" them numbs you to the "completeness" that's always there, in your inner life. Your inner being, your spirit and consciousness is always connected with everything, because it's a part of everything to begin with.
Your inner self is the source of true security, well being and self-esteem. And the source of your capacity to build the necessary resilience and actions that provide meaningful connection in all parts of your life, not just to a social network. That is, what helps alleviate loneliness is having a larger vision of purpose, an aim for your life that connects you with something larger than just your own self. Something that's meaningful and engages your soul.
Meditation can help, here, by restoring and reclaiming awareness of your inner life, that source of "completeness" and wellbeing that's always there. Other small acts can help, as well. For example, research finds that exposure to nature, such as a hike through the outdoors, enhances your wellbeing and your capacity for problem-solving. That can help you find new ways to free yourself from loneliness.
Awakening your inner life expands your consciousness from the inside out. That helps you discover a larger vision of purpose, meaning and connection in your life. We are, after all, fragments of the entire cosmos, and contain everything from the Big Bang within our beings -- we who are "intelligent stardust." Such awareness is a good antidote to feeling lonely -- whether you have few human connections or live within the midst of a crowd.
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Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.