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Can Wisdom Protect Against Loneliness?

The leader of a new study says it can and offers smart tips

By Holly Lawrence

A fascinating new study of loneliness found that adults are at risk across the entire lifespan, but especially during their late-20s, mid-50s and late-80s. Equally interesting: the researchers say that wisdom can help protect against loneliness. That finding could be particularly useful for boomers in their mid-50s and their parents in their late-80s.

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"You have more control over loneliness than you might think," said Dr. Dilip Jeste, the professor of psychiatry and neurosciences and director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego who conducted the study. "Loneliness is a personality trait. All traits are modifiable. That's where wisdom comes in."

The researchers studied 340 residents of San Diego, ages 27 to 101. Roughly three-fourths (76 percent) of the participants reported moderate to high levels of loneliness, and loneliness increased for those in their late-20s, mid-50s and late-80s. Loneliness was associated with depression, anxiety, stress, and cognitive complaints and those with higher levels of loneliness had lower resilience, optimism and mental well-being.

"Loneliness means feeling stressed out because your expectations for quality social relationships are not met," said Jeste. "It then leads to anxiety, and even fear about future social engagement. Instead of expecting a positive experience from a new relationship, the person goes in anticipating an unsuccessful or disheartening or stressful encounter. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and perpetuates a vicious circle."

Jeste and his colleagues created the San Diego Wisdom Scale which identifies wisdom as having a variety of components including compassion, empathy, self-reflection, decisiveness, the ability to give good advice to others, the ability to control your emotions and the acceptance of uncertainty and diversity of perspectives.

"Our study shows that wisdom and loneliness did not seem to coexist. In other words, wiser people don't feel lonely and vice versa," Jeste said. "Obviously, this doesn't prove that increasing wisdom will reduce loneliness, but it certainly points in that direction… It is logical to expect that wisdom will counter loneliness."

Why Are Certain Ages At Higher Risk?

Of course, not everyone in their mid-50s or late-80s will get lonely, Jeste noted. But he and his colleague Dr. Ellen Lee, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist and one of the study's authors, offered thoughts on why loneliness may peak at those ages:

The mid-50s is a period of midlife crisis, Jeste explained. Also, during that time of life, women experience menopause and men experience changes associated with andropause (symptoms including fatigue and a decrease in libido). Physical illnesses start to surface, too.

"You start seeing death  —in your family, friends — and you become aware of the shorter lifespan," said Jeste. "You start to realize that the time horizon is truncated now."

Lee said that research assumes people in their late-80s group are at greater risk of loneliness for a variety of reasons: they may become widowed, lose friends, have a smaller social network or become more isolated socially due to physical disabilities, for example.

Advice for Increasing Wisdom to Prevent Loneliness


Jeste offered advice on how to break a pattern loneliness by increasing wisdom.

Start with self-reflection, what Jeste calls the most important part of wisdom. This means "honestly looking inside yourself and thinking about your strengths and your limitations," he advised, providing an example. "I may have five friends, and I feel lonely because I feel that I need twenty friends. However, you may have five friends, and you're more than happy with having five friends. So, you don't feel lonely."

Jeste explained that the person who feels lonely with only five friends do one of two things. "I can find opportunities to increase my friendships from five to twenty; an older person could move into senior housing where there are organized social activities or find friends through Facebook. Alternatively, I can reduce my expectations."

To reduce expectations, said Jeste, "I can think, 'Why do I feel I need twenty friends, and not five? What is making me want twenty friends? Is it because I lack self-compassion? Is it because I'm not decisive?" Self-reflection, Jeste added, helps in adjusting expectations to the reality.

You can also increase wisdom by developing self-compassion, Jeste said. That's about accepting yourself for who you are. If you go to a party and not everyone wants to talk with you, let it go. "By developing compassion for yourself, you become less bothered about not connecting with those people," said Jeste.

To become more positive about your life, Jeste said, keep a gratitude diary and write in it daily what makes you feel grateful, happy or proud. "Doing this regularly would help you start the next day looking for positive happenings," said Jeste.

Alternatively, he suggested, share your day's positive experiences with others at the dinner table.

Summing up his study's findings, Jeste said: "Every one of us is capable of being wiser and less lonely. We have more control over our brain, mind, and body than we think. We teach our kids to form good physical habits like brushing teeth every morning and night. Likewise, we can form good mental and behavioral habits of wisdom at any age. Loneliness will then be a thing of the past."

Holly Lawrence is a freelance writer on well-being and issues affecting older adults. Connect on LinkedIn. Read More
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