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Though it’s hard to describe what loneliness feels like, nearly everyone has felt it. It’s that knot in your stomach when you’re away from someone you love, the sadness of losing someone you care about, the pain of feeling like an outcast, or the agony of loving someone who doesn’t feel the same way. We feel lonely when we are unhappy with the quality or quantity of our interpersonal relationships. We feel lonely because we think we lack connection with friends, family, or partners.
Sometimes we’re truly alone, while other times, we simply think we are. Either way, loneliness sucks.
Over the past 40 years, scientists have studied many aspects of loneliness, from its genetic components to how feeling alone impacts a person’s lifespan or quality of life. In these decades, they have learned a lot — including some things that might seem counterintuitive. We unpacked five common misconceptions about loneliness, to better understand — and hopefully, conquer — those negative feelings we all have:
Loneliness Is Not Just A Human Emotion
Often, people think that our emotional responses, ranging from anger to loneliness, are felt uniquely by members of the human species. But science suggests that a wide range of species can actually feel lonely, and that the emotions associated with loneliness are a key piece of a biological warning system that helps ensure survival.
Social species — like us — depend on other members of our species from birth, and in many cases, being alone means not gathering enough food or having adequate protection from predators. Thus, what we call loneliness may be our body’s way of protecting us when we are isolated to ensure our survival, just like feeling hungry warns us that we need to eat. “Loneliness represents a generally adaptive predisposition in response to a discrepancy between an animal’s preferred and actual social relations that can be found across phylogeny,” scientists explain in a Perspectives on Psychological Science study.
For example, they note that poor sleep is often associated with loneliness. When we’re sleeping, we’re most vulnerable to would-be attackers, and thus sleeping less when alone might have helped keep our ancestors alive until they reconnected with others. Knowing that we’re not the only lonely species on the planet can help us understand the biological source of our negative feelings using animal models, and might just give us some much-needed insights into how to feel less alone.
Loneliness Is Not Just A Product Of Our Environment Or Circumstances
The more scientists study what causes loneliness, the more they have come to realize that a decent portion of how we feel is written in our DNA. Genes that regulate neurotransmitters and the immune system have been linked to worse negative feelings when alone. That’s not to say that our genes are entirely to blame, but people with certain variants of key genes will feel lonelier than others when in the same situation. By understanding how our genes affect how bad we feel when we’re alone, scientists may be able to determine what types of support or treatment are best for which people, particularly when loneliness leads to depression and other, more dangerous emotional states.
Loneliness Isn’t The Same At Every Age
Everyone feels loneliness at some point in their lives. But at different ages, loneliness can mean different things, and is triggered by different experiences. For example, scientists have found that friendship quantity is important when we’re younger. But as we age, quantity becomes less important than quality, and romantic relationships in particular rise in importance. Because the causes are different, the ways we react to loneliness changes throughout our lifespan, and so, too, do the best ways to resolve our negative feelings.
Loneliness Is Not Just Emotional
We often think of loneliness as feelings and thoughts, but those negative emotions have an impact on our bodies that goes beyond sadness or melancholy. Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risks for early death according to scientists. In part, this is because we don’t always treat our bodies well when we’re upset — we smoke, drink, or engage in other unhealthy behaviors to cope. But loneliness also causes physiological changes that are worse for us, like spikes in blood pressure or increased concentrations of certain hormones. All of this means that being proactive about our health when we’re lonely can be an extra way to help snap ourselves out of negative thinking; if we consciously choose to eat better or do other healthy behaviors when we feel our worst, we can not only improve our bodies, but also improve our moods.
Loneliness Isn’t Always A Bad Thing
While loneliness feels awful and can be harmful to your body, it evolved to benefit us, and it still does. Scientists believe that aversion to loneliness evolved as a signal to tell us that our connections are broken or under threat, thereby motivating us to maintain or repair them. Thus loneliness helps promote healthy relationships with those around us, in the same way that thirst ensures we drink enough water. And even though it hurts at the time, science has shown that for most people, loneliness goes away fairly quickly, replaced by warm, fuzzy feelings when we reach out and connect with others. Persistent feelings of loneliness can be damaging, but the more we learn about how and why we feel the way we do, the better equipped we are to prevent or treat loneliness to become our happiest, healthiest selves.