Feeling Lonely? Evolution Is Partly to Blame
Research says a cycle of loneliness is difficult (but not impossible) to break
(Editor's Note: This story was previously published by Rewire.)
Loneliness is something a lot of adults — young and old — struggle with on a daily basis. If you’re not someone who experiences loneliness often, or ever, you might not realize how seriously it can affect a person. After all, in this era of interconnectedness, who could ever really be lonely?
According to University of Iowa researcher Jing “Alice” Wang, real loneliness is more than just being alone sometimes, or sad sometimes. True loneliness is triggered by a “friendship deficit” — it’s the sadness felt by people who don’t feel satisfied with the number of relationships they have.
“Someone growing up in a big family with lots of kids might need a lot of relationships to be happy,” Wang said in a previous story published by Rewire. “Others can be happy with just two or three friends. For some, a friend on the other side of the globe to talk with on the phone is enough.”
Her research suggested that despite our interconnectedness, we’re more socially isolated now than we were two decades ago. Another study of young and older adults across the world indicated that 30 to 40 percent of participants felt lonely constantly. And being lonely doesn’t just meaning you feel miserable emotionally — it’s also bad for your physical health. Some doctors have called for it to be treated like a chronic illness.
New research conducted over a decade suggests that feelings of loneliness are also intertwined with self-centeredness — and offers some insight on how to break a cycle of feeling lonely.
Can Being Lonely Make You Feel More Lonely?
So, loneliness is the result of a “friendship deficit.” But what can make it worse? A study by University of Chicago psychology professors John and Stephanie Cacioppo indicates that a “positive feedback loop” exists between loneliness and self-centeredness: one trait begets the other, and vice versa.
“If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated,” John Cacioppo said in a university release.
The researchers expected to find that loneliness increases self-centeredness, but were surprised that the opposite is also true. They studied 11 years of data from 229 adults and believe self-centeredness and loneliness are linked for evolutionary reasons: Having a healthy sense of self-preservation is key to survival.
And “when we don’t have mutual aid and protection” — i.e., we have a “friendship deficit” and feel lonely — “we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare,” John Cacioppo said. “That is, we become more self-centered.”
But the world is nothing like it was when modern humans first evolved. Therein lies the rub. Society has changed — our brains, not so much. Looking inward when we become lonely is detrimental in the long-term.
“This evolutionarily adaptive response may have helped people survive in ancient times, but in contemporary society may well make it harder for people to get out of feelings of loneliness,” John Cacioppo said.
Loneliness is a Wake-Up Call
Just like physical pain is our body’s way of telling us to stop doing whatever it is we’re doing, feelings of loneliness are meant to alert us that something is wrong, the research suggests.
“A variety of biological mechanisms have evolved that capitalize on aversive signals to motivate us to act in ways that are essential for our reproduction or survival,” the researchers wrote. "One of those mechanisms is loneliness: It’s an indicator that we need to fix or replace unfulfilling social relationships in our lives. In the early days of human history, these relationships were vital to survival."
Although the stakes are lower today — you no longer need a buddy to help you fend off a saber-toothed tiger — humans supporting one another still prevents loneliness and the self-centeredness that follows.
“It isn’t that one individual is sacrificial to the other,” said Stephanie Cacioppo. “It’s that together they do more than the sum of the parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your interests at the expense of others.”
So, to break a cycle of loneliness, try looking inward and breaking from self-centered habits. Ask a coworker to lunch rather than eating alone. Call a family member and ask them how their day was. The researchers wrote in the paper that “targeting self-centeredness as part of an intervention to lessen loneliness may help break a positive feedback loop that maintains or worsens loneliness over time.”