- Humans have evolved to be social creatures.
- Loneliness has adverse emotional and physical effects on both the brain and body.
- If one has discomfort in social situations, others may misread them, perpetuating loneliness.
I recently heard a trailer for a radio programme, in which the announcer asked us if we knew that reaching out to others can enhance our health and even help us live longer. He sounded somewhat surprised himself.
Yet I remember writing about the power of social connection way back in the early 1980s, on publication of the latest report from the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term investigation of the heart health of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts. It had revealed that having close relationships was more important for the heart than standard protective factors, such as taking exercise, having a good diet, and not smoking. (The article, in the British edition of Cosmopolitan, was even given the chirpy title, “Love your friends and save your life.”)
Research on Loneliness
This was quite astounding at the time, and supportive findings from other studies followed, such as one that found that men who felt loved by their partners were less likely to suffer heart attacks than those who felt neglected.
Much more has been discovered, of course, in the intervening years, about the power of connection with others and its wider impact on health, protecting against not just heart attacks but also other ills. It is now scientifically accepted that the human brain is a social organ and that we need social connection to survive.1 Put bluntly, loneliness can be a killer.
As the late John Cacioppo, an eminent psychologist in this field, described in his book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, not only does loneliness adversely affect the stress system, which enables us to deal with major or chronic stressful circumstances, but it also slows healing and reduces brain power.2
The findings continue to accrue. For instance, Finnish researchers recently showed that those who described themselves as lonely were at higher risk of contracting infections that needed hospital treatment.3
Strikingly, Cacioppo showed how people who are lonely have heightened sensitivity to social threats. In a test in which participants had to name the colour in which positive and negative social and nonsocial words were printed (for instance, "cooperate," "reject," "delicious," and "vomit"), only lonely people were slow to name the colours of socially negative words like "reject."
Fear of Rejection
“The brains of lonely people are on high alert, focused on social connection and social rejection in everything they do, which is why they see evidence for rejection or unkindness, even when its existence is questionable,” John Cacioppo told me in an interview for Human Givens Journal.4 Unfortunately, the fear of being rejected can make us too demanding or too critical of others, or too passive—and so we manage to sabotage the very thing we want—a genuine, meaningful connection with another person. Alas, the lonelier we are, the lonelier we may get.
I have worked with many university students struggling with loneliness and fearful of reaching out to others. Social anxiety is behind most of it. Just recently, one told me that he couldn’t speak when in a group of students, fearing they would find him boring. It was just after the beginning of his first term when people were starting to form their friendship groups, and so it was important that he quickly learned how to manage himself better.
I suggested that he needed to recognise what he might be contributing to situations he found awkward, through the way he presented himself in them. Did he appear reluctant to be spoken to? Aloof (through fear)? Did intense concentration make him seem judgmental?
I advised him to ask questions of others. “Be like a journalist,” I told him. “Be genuinely curious. Ask about their interests and listen to the answer, instead of worrying about what they may be thinking of you. If you listen to the answer, you will have your next question, and quite quickly the conversation can start to flow more naturally.”
Having an external focus instead of an internal focus is, of course, the key. He tried this and reported back that he had felt comfortable in, and accepted by, the group. (Not surprising, as he alone had been excluding himself.) The experience gave him encouragement and confidence.
I also suggest lonely or shy people try out activities where the focus is not on meeting people but involves being with others in a natural way—such as through joining a park litter-picking group, acting as a tour guide, signing up for rambles, taking someone’s dog for a walk in the park—that can lead to a lot of chat, all unthreateningly dog-focused—and so forth. Oiling the wheels of social communication makes connection easier.
So, as the radio programme proclaimed, reaching out to others can indeed enhance our health and well-being—and maybe it does need saying over and over again.
1. Ratey, J (200l). A User’s Guide to the Brain. Little, Brown and Company.
2. Cacioppo, J T with Patrick, W (2009). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. Norton.
3. Elovainio, M, Komulainen, K et al (2023). Association of social isolation and loneliness with risk of incident hospital-treated infections: an analysis of data from the UK Biobank and Finnish Health and Social Support studies. Lancet Public Health, doi: 10.1016/ S2468-2667(22)00253-5
4. Cacioppo, J T and Winn, D (2009). Loneliness: the forgotten survival instinct. Human Givens Journal, 16, 3, 24–9