In a new study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers studied some of the ways loneliness is bad for your health. From the press release:
…when the psychologists looked at the lives of the middle-aged and old people in their study, they found that although the lonely ones reported the same number of stressful life events, they identified more sources of chronic stress and recalled more childhood adversity. Moreover, they differed in how they perceived their life experiences. Even when faced with similar challenges, the lonelier people appeared more helpless and threatened. And ironically, they were less apt to actively seek help when they are stressed out.
Hawkley and Cacioppo then took urine samples from both the lonely and the more contented volunteers, and found that the lonely ones had more of the hormone epinephrine flowing in their bodies. Epinephrine is one of the body’s “fight or flight” chemicals, and high levels indicate that lonely people go through life in a heightened state of arousal. … Since the body’s stress hormones are intricately involved in fighting inflammation and infection, it appears that loneliness contributes to the wear and tear of aging through this pathway as well.
There is more bad news. … [they] found that the lonely nights were disturbed by many “micro awakenings.” That is, they appeared to sleep as much as the normal volunteers, but their sleep was of poorer quality.
I’m not sure what the underlying value of this research is. Are lonely people supposed to be jarred out of their loneliness when they learn it’s stressful? “Like, gee, I think I’ll stop being lonely and get a bunch of close friends, a cat and a lover next week instead.” Isn’t loneliness, by definition, an unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable desire for companionship? Don’t lonely people already realize it doesn’t have a positive impact on their lives?
The researchers were careful to mention that solitude (when chosen) is not the same as loneliness, but underscore that social isolation as a growing problem leading to compounded stress. This may be so, statistics do bear it out, but it does beg the question: what to do about it?