If you are feeling lonely, you’re not alone. A recent study involving 340 San Diego County residents of various ages has found that loneliness is shockingly widespread. The study suggests that there is a 76% prevalence of moderate to severe loneliness in American society. This is a bombshell statistic. After all, our country has enshrined the pursuit of happiness in its constitution and prides itself on having a high standard of living (twelfth in the world), which apparently doesn’t equate with living well. What went wrong?
The hopeful news in this study is that there is an inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom.
Those who possessed six components of wisdom experienced less loneliness — namely: general knowledge of life; emotion management; empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness; insight; acceptance of divergent values; and decisiveness — the ability to make quick, effective decisions when necessary.
The authors of this study suggest that more research is needed.1 But it makes intuitive sense that the antidote to loneliness is to develop an inner life, which is the purview of Western psychology and Eastern approaches to spirituality.
The American dream of achieving a successful, happy life clearly has some flaws. It appears to me that chief among them is the longstanding societal belief that the key to happiness is through external pursuits rather realizing that it’s an inside job.
What We Want and How To Find It
Dr. Dilip Jeste, the senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, has defined loneliness as “subjective distress,” that is, “the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have.”
We have a longing to be seen, understood, and accepted. We desire the pleasure of connecting, a sense of belonging, a tender intimacy with another human. Such meaningful connections are less likely without wisdom qualities that include empathy and compassion.
If our personality has not developed in a way where it is natural for us to extend empathy and understanding toward people, they won’t be inclined to feel safe with us; they won’t come toward us. We may be left feeling lonely without realizing that we’ve become a person who doesn’t know how to soften and relax with people — generously extending our attention and caring, while also letting in others’ caring.
Another antidote to loneliness is developing the wisdom quality of emotion management, which refers to self-regulation and self-soothing. This includes having empathy toward ourselves. We need to deal wisely with the instinctual fight, flight, freeze response when we get emotionally activated.
Relationships trigger our deepest fears (of rejection), shame (not being good enough), and hurts (feeling abandoned). If we don’t know how to deal with the emotions that relationships and life bring up in us, we’ll either act them out (lashing out) or internalize them (shutting down and retreating). Not dealing skillfully with our emotional life contributes to our isolation. Sadly, our education system is not geared toward helping us develop emotional intelligence, although there are now innovative, research-based educational programs, such as the Toolbox, that address this serious gap.
The longer we delay developing wisdom qualities, emotional intelligence, and a rich inner life, the more we set ourselves up for loneliness.2 We’re also prey to the well-documented health risks of loneliness, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, and cognitive decline.3 Old age is challenging enough. If we haven’t pursued Socrates wise dictate, “know thyself,” then we’re additionally challenged.
Psychotherapists and philosophers (lovers of wisdom) have encouraged us to know ourselves, which fosters inner peace and provides the foundation for close, meaningful relationships. Investing in therapy or pursuing inner practices that help us connect with ourselves, such as meditation, yoga, Focusing, or other paths toward befriending ourselves can become invaluable resources to foster our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
We all feel lonely sometimes. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is heartening that research is confirming the obvious — that the best antidote to loneliness is developing an interpersonal life nourished by qualities that include empathy, compassion, and caring about others.
I’m curious about the social implications of this important study. One takeaway for me is that reducing loneliness, which is a step toward finding happiness, is not a matter of pursuing our own private pleasure or success to the exclusion of how we affect each other. As we know, many powerful business people and notable politicians who have competed, dominated, and “won” are among the most miserable, lonely human beings on the planet. They’ve gained the world, but lost their own souls.
We might look good, but the important question is how good do we feel inside? If we’re honest with ourselves, are we fairly happy or dogged by a nagging loneliness, which we try to avoid through drinking, spending, or other addictive habits?
Is maintaining the pure form of capitalism and hands-off competition the best system for achieving the happiness we desire? Or is it in our collective best interest to make prudent adjustments that include wise regulations and oversight? How can we create conditions for an economic, social, and political system that fosters qualities of compassion and kindness? Many people would accept that our society is dysfunctional, but what are steps toward a cure?
Studies have consistently shown that European nations, which arguably have more concern for the collective welfare, have the highest levels of happiness. According to the UN’s latest Human Development Report, six of the seven happiest countries in the world are European. ((Here are the 11 best countries to live in around the world. (2017). The Economic Times. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/slideshows/nation-world/here-are-the-11-best-countries-to-live-in-around-the-world/the-netherlands/slideshow/57875327.cms))
For me, this study raises vital, yet neglected questions: how can we create conditions where people feel more connected and less isolated? What needs to happen in our inner and outer lives so that we not only have the right to pursue happiness, but also have a fair shot at achieving it?
- Scutti, S. (2018, December 20). Loneliness peaks at three key ages, study finds – but wisdom may help. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/18/health/loneliness-peaks-study/index.html [↩]
- Goleman, D. (n.d.) Emotional intelligence. Retrieved from http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/emotional-intelligence/ [↩]
- Gerst-Emerson, K., & Jayawardhana, J. (2015, May). Loneliness as a public health issue: The impact of loneliness on health care utilization among older adults. American Journal of Public Health, 105(5): 1013–1019. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4386514/ [↩]