Loneliness Might Be More Complicated Than We Thought

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Today seems like as good a day to talk about loneliness as any, doesn’t it?

Google tells us that loneliness is “sadness because one has no friends or company.” The research that’s been done on loneliness, however, suggests a subtler definition.

For starters, loneliness is not the same as social isolation. A 2016 study found that loneliness and social isolation are only moderately correlated. In other words, being socially isolated does predictably tend to make people more lonely, but not all lonely people are socially isolated and not all socially isolated people are lonely. The same study found that about 40 percent of one’s predisposition to loneliness seems to be genetic, and that there’s a strong genetic correlation between loneliness and depression.

Of course, depression is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harmful effects of loneliness. A quick search will turn up dozens of news articles proclaiming that loneliness is deadlier than obesity, is deadlier than smoking, is a public health epidemic, will kill you, and so on. Indeed, loneliness does appear to be a risk factor for multiple health problems.

One group of researchers studied 8593 elderly people to figure out why loneliness seems to be such bad news. They found that loneliness was associated with heart disease, diabetes and migraine, and that a significant part of this association came down to four factors: stress, physical inactivity, smoking and sleep. In other words, lonelier people tend to feel more stressed, exercise less, smoke more, and sleep worse, which puts them at higher risk for several different health problems.

Another study, from researchers at Montclair State University, took a more in-depth look at the relationship between loneliness and stress. It found that while the two are unsurprisingly linked, some lonely people are more stressed than others.

In particular, lonely people who have more social support tend to be less stressed. Now, yes, it might sound obvious that social support protects against some of the negative effects of loneliness, but the details are a little paradoxical here: it turns out that only social support from friends appears to be helpful in breaking the link between loneliness and stress. Lonely people who receive more social support from family and from romantic partners seem to be just as stressed out.

Where does that leave us, then? Well, for one, with the perhaps somewhat unhelpful advice that the way to fight loneliness is to seek out social support from friends.

And with the conclusion that we might know less about loneliness than we thought. Loneliness decidedly isn’t the same as social isolation, and it has a number of serious health effects scientists are just beginning to understand, suggesting that there’s a strong need for more research on the topic.

Image: Flickr/Roger Florensa