March 30: The Psychology of the COVID-19 Pandemic

About the event.  The global COVID-19 pandemic has provided psychologist with a glimpse into to human resiliency and fragilities. As some people thrived during the pandemic others deeply suffered which has led to what is known as “pandemic burn-out”. During the pandemic psychologist worldwide measured the psychological impact of the pandemic. This presentation provides a summary of the findings and provides a framework for understanding individual’s response by utilizing social identity theory and work on loneliness and social isolation. Dr. Peterson will be asked questions by moderator and will take questions from the virtual audience on topic of psychology and the pandemic. 

When? March 30, 2022 starting at 5:30pm (Arizona Time).

Where? Can be watched on Zoom at

or YouTube live at:

Rejection is a pain – 10 ways to reduce it happening in intimate relationships.


To start this article, I want to begin with a simple premise: Physical pain and the pain from being rejected are the same. The human brain and the brain of other social animals reacts the same whether someone is dying from a chronic illness, being shocked, or being dumped by an intimate partner or being denied entry into a group. However, we for some reason like to separate the two, and place rejection within the realm of emotions (which as humans we falsely think are controllable) and physical injury in the domain of the uncontrollable (after all it was not their fault the sidewalk was there when they fell off their bike while trying to do a hand stand). What I mean by these statements is we tend to empathize with physical injury and forgive the reasons, but we tend to consider the suffering from reject as a sign of weakness and not being of hardy stalk. However, our world view of rejection is wrong, and by correcting this view, we can heal from the pain of rejection better, heal faster, and regain a sense of stability. To do this I think it is useful to use a common form of rejection and that is intimate partner rejection and I want to compare that to a more long-term physical disease such as cancer. I like this analogy because both rejection of an intimate partner and the development of cancer can occur very quickly or they both can sit dormant for years until an escalating moment. The second, is once cancer and the possibility of the loss of an intimate partner is made apparent both disease states tend to accelerate in their progression. Third, once the cancer is removed or the person leaves there is no guarantee of recovery or that one will not experience the disease ever again. Finally, I think this is a good analogy because we need to be honest both cancer and rejection from a close intimate partner can both lead to death. Indeed, the number one cause of homicide in the United States is intimate partner homicide, and over the past three decades cheating – the ultimate form of rejection – has become the number one reason for intimate partner homicide. Additionally, suicidal behavior is often followed by rejection, especially of a close intimate partner. With these four similarities in mind let us move on and explore how we can heal successfully.

I want to start our comparison by first stating a simple disease step model, I think by using this simple model it will be easier to come to understand how rejection occurs and the pain process:

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There are a few qualities of this comparison that I like to make. First is that it is a progression, while it may seem like it at times, when two people are truly intimately connected they do not just wake up one morning and say “I am leaving”. There is always a progression that continually erodes the relationship much like a cancer erodes and destroys a healthy body. A good example of this is research that interviewed divorced individuals and indicated that when the individual really starts to analyze their relationship, the relationship started to erode about two years before the individuals start to realize there is a problem.

The second thing that I hope the reader recognizes is that while this is a very general model, the processes are almost identical – BUT – the major difference is how the individual tends to respond, especially as both diseases progress. This is largely due to our belief systems that (1) a person should have control over their relationship, and (2) if there is a problem one should be able to fix it, if the couple ‘really’ loves each other. I think it is worth taking some time exploring these two faulty belief systems. The first is the illusion of control, the fact is, you and your partner, can do everything perfect. You can follow all the relationship advise, treat each other with complete respect, cherish one another completely, and guess what? – You can still end up being a divorce statistic. Please do not take this as a criticism of humans and our ability to have long lasting relationships. Remember the analogy between physical disease and rejection. A person can eat right, exercise, refrain from toxins and they can still end up having cancer or dying young of heart disease. This same principle applies to human relationships. With that being said, we should not end up be complete skeptics of our health or our relationships. The person who eats right and exercises will have a much better quality of life even if they still end up with a disease. The same goes with relationships, while all relationships may end, the more we invest healthily into them the higher the quality of experiences we have. The second illusion that if two people really love each other they should be able to fix it, I think comes from our overall illusion that we can also control our own fate.

Especially in highly individualistic societies, like the one here in the United States, individuals tend to believe that everything good and bad that a person does OR that a person experiences is solely due to the actions and beliefs of that individual. In other words, we maintain bad beliefs such as “she broke up with you because you are a bad person”, or “If he can’t love you because of who you are, no one else is going to either”. Now we should qualify this, because for much of western society’s history we did this with physical diseases, so once we believed that people got cancer because the gods were punishing them for being a sinner, or a person has a mental illness because they had a weak mind that allowed them to be possessed by some demon. It was not until western medicine and science started to debunk these myths that we started to see physical diseases as we do today – Although there are still some people who believe that diseases are a punishment from god, but that a whole other article.  It is in this same tradition of science that I write this article, in that we know enough scientifically about human relationships, that placing the entire fault for rejection on a single person or a single occurrence or process is ridiculous. So, if it is not because one person changes, that ruins a relationship, then what is it? As you think about this question you probably thinking that it is an unsolvable question, but it is actually fairly simple, change is the culprit to eventual rejection. But before I explain this there is one more faulty belief system that we must first address. That faulty belief is that we as individuals do not change greatly over time, and that our personality, beliefs, and who we are at the core does not change. The fact is you will be a different person five years from now than you are today. Indeed, you probably been a different person several times today already. Let me provide a simple example, what if someone secretly recorded you alone in your bedroom, out with friends at night, playing with your kids, and let us say giving a big work presentation. I am willing to bet if I blurred your face and changed your voice in each scenario and played it back to you, you would report seeing and hearing four (amazing) but different individuals. The truth is we are who we are based on (a) the demands of the situation, (b) our skills and ability to respond to the situation, and (c) our ability to comprehend the situation. Additionally, each situation demands something different from us, and therefore we must respond to a situation differently. However, because it would make us crazy to think we have so many different selves, which would lead us to feeling very unstable, our mind and brain have developed the illusion that we are consistent and stable overtime. In fact, we have gotten so good at this that we can change memories going clear back into childhood to make them congruent with who we are today without even realizing it is happening. The problem is, if I am stable and that is core to who I am, then my relationships remain stable and the same, because they are also core to my own identity. Therefore, any time a person has relationship difficulties, they sadly try to reset the relationship to “how we use to be when we first fell in love”. As you can guess, this almost always ends up failing. Indeed, most successful couples when they reach a point of recognizing their relationship has eroded, recognize first how much they and their partner has changed, and instead of rekindling the old flame, they go through process of courting and falling in love with this new person and leave that old relationship behind. It is as Mignon McLaughlin stated, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” – but should add with the same person as they are today.

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So the question that remains is given that any relationship no matter of the healthy behaviors the couple engages in, how does one have a long lasting relationship and decrease the chances of eventual rejection and loss.


#1 – Engage in healthy relationship behaviors, say “I love you” daily, touch, communicate, be honest with feelings for each other, doing things together, etc. For this there are plenty of relationship books that can help couples learn exercises of a health relationship.


#2 – Self-awareness. The ability to recognize one’s own physical and mental state as it relates to one’s situation is what we call self-awareness. We often go through our day with a narrow window of self-awareness because that all we really need to get through the common roles we have in life. However, it is advised to at least once a week for at least 30 minutes a person becomes completely self-aware of their physical, social, and psychological world. After which, engaging in self-reflection about how one is doing, how one is changing, and how one is feeling about their current situation is an important and provides a person with a guide. This can be done through several mediums such as journaling, yoga, meditation, prayer (if your religious), or any form activity that allows you to be aware of where you are completely as a person.


#3 – Recognize and embrace change. Accept that change is going to happen and that means you will need to continually work at your relationship. Never assume that your relationship is like a rock and is unbendable or unbreakable.


#4 – Continually try new things. Stagnation is like stopping exercise or eating right when it comes to relationship health. Yes there are times in all our lives when we do the day-to-day grind. However, actively seeking ways to engage one’s interest, discover new things, and engage one’s world differently can provide great learning opportunities and relationship bonding moments.


#5 – This probably should be number 1 – but remember if you decide to live in a radioactive bucket – do not be surprised if you get cancer. In same vein, if you live your life with toxic people, do not be surprised if you always are experiencing rejection and loss. Sometimes the people we desire  – are reason for our disease – just like I know if I continue eating chocolate cake I will gain weight and run risk of heart disease.


#6 – Be human! Often, we think that the perfect relationship is a relationship without conflict and problems. We forget that relationships are made by imperfect people, and therefore are inherently not perfect. Be honest with feelings, do not hide your faults, and encourage your partner to do the same.


#7 – Do not ignore other social relationships. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement of an intimate relationship we let other important relationships in our lives weaken or even completely abandoned. Remember that we are a social creators, and we all have a differing needs for both social connections and emotional connections. When we do not maintain the needed level for both, we can find ourselves in deep despair, loneliness, and possibly depression. While it is wonderful to fall in love, remember that you both need to fall in love with each other’s complete world.


#8 – Maintain connection through common beliefs. Interestingly the idea of opposite attracts is not true when it comes to long successful relationships. Indeed, individuals who are in long-term relationships – and are still in love – have the same or similar belief systems and attitudes. Identify these early on in a relationship and nurture them together.


#9 – Intimate relationship that include sexuality, should be a vibrant sexuality. I often gross out my younger students when lecturing on long-term relationships, because I ask “how many have grandparents who were married for most of their lives and still really love each other?”. I then explain to these students that when it comes to sexuality, your grandparents were – and still probably are – freaks in the bedroom. Indeed, we find that individuals in long-term loving relationships tend to try new things, get adventurous with each other, and never let their sexually intimate life become stagnate. Now there are always those exceptions where one or both partners, usually due to health problems, lose interest in sex and we know that sex interests vary across the life span. We still find that individual who are going through a period of low sexuality or loss of their sexual life, tend to compensate in different ways such as increasing and diversifying other pleasurable couple activities.


#10 – Understand your own ‘life space’ and the life space of your partner. A famous social psychologist, Kirt Lewin, introduced the idea of life space, as a way to try and visually represent human behavior. If you can imagine a large bubble, that contains all of a person possibilities, then you understand visually what one’s life space is. But first what is meant by all of a person’s possibilities? Lewin recognized that every situation that we find our self in there is a range of possible reactions to that situation. All of one’s possible reactions is one’s life space. So, let me give an example, a school teacher who is making 40,000 a year, is at a car show where she is presented with the opportunity to purchase a $200,000 luxury car. Is this part of the teacher’s life space or range of possibilities? Given her income, cost of insurance, other financial obligations, the probability of buying the luxury car given the teacher’s current life space is very very small. Now the teacher recognizing that the car is not within her current life space can do things to add to it, life get a higher paying job, pay off lots of bills etc etc. But unfortunately, we do not live in a world of what we could do, we often live in the here and now, and understanding our current life space helps us understand our limits and abilities when it comes to actually engaging in a intimate relationship. Once we are aware of it, then and only then can we recognize how it will impact our current relationship, but also what we need to work at, so that the range of possibilities within a relationship can increase through the expansion of our own life space. The other reason for bring up the concept of life space is we often need to recognize the boundaries of our partner’s life space. If you are approaching a relationship with the intent on changing someone, you might as well start saving for the divorce now. For a person to change they must recognize the limitations of their own life space and have the tools and ability to expand their space. Now this does not mean if someone does not meet all your standards that you should not consider being in a relationship with them, but it does mean that you will need to sacrifice something to have that relationship – and sometimes sacrifice is okay.


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10 Qualities of a Happy Person

By: Curtis Peterson ©

Scrolling through my recent articles, which has been awhile, I noticed that I have focused on some negative attributes of the human condition such as loneliness and violence. With this in mind, I decided to write an article on more positive aspects of being human such as happiness and fulfillment. The first thing I think we should describe is what is happiness.

Happiness is often described by its’ opposite pain. Pain is a negative physical-psychological state that indicates that there is something wrong with the person. Pain can be both physical – like a paper cut – or it can be psychological – like the pain of rejection. Interestingly, we do not need to spend much time differentiating between the two because recent neurological data suggests that both physical and psychological pain originate from the same place in the brain and undergo similar processes. However, healing from each may require different methods. Since pain is a signal to the individual that something is wrong, then it would make sense that happiness is the absence of pain – meaning everything is currently alright. However, happiness goes a bit further because it includes feelings of optimism, feelings of place, and a general feeling that at this moment things are the way they should be.

Now it is important to distinguish between two types of happiness. The first is situational happiness; this is the happiness that we experience when we have some special event that occurs such as a birthday, wedding, divorce, or graduation. This type of happiness can be likened to its’ opposite, which is extreme pain experienced due to situational factors such as a car accident – meaning (hopefully) these extreme forms of pain and happiness tend to be short lived. The other type of happiness is continuous happiness. There is a portion of our population that measure high in continuous happiness, which includes a heighten state of optimism, a general sense of justice, and along with optimism, and these individuals tend to see struggles as opportunities. Now, this is very important; this does not mean that these individuals do not struggle. Indeed, these people can be found across the socio-economic strata from impoverished individuals to wealthy, minorities to majorities. They also tend to face the same number of challenges as less happy people do, but they differ in one way. Continuously happy individuals tend to view current crises as part of the human experience and that they will not last forever. Now since the late 1990s, a group of psychologists started what is known as the positive psychology movement. The idea behind the movement is the recognition that most of what psychology has studied are the psychopathologies of life – or what we can call the pain and dysfunctional side of life’s spectrum – and very little time was spent looking at its’ opposite such as happiness, well-being, and positive motivation. These psychologists started to look for individuals who seemed to continually happy and content, and of course, once we found them we bugged them with surveys, brain scans, and observing them to try and determine what makes them unique. What has resulted is what I call the ten principles of continuously happy individuals. The ten are listed here with a description of each to follow:

1. Engaged life
2. Meaningful life
3. Authentic life
4. Have a spiritual belief or philosophy
5. Notion of Justice
6. Work and play
7. Positive evaluation of negative emotions
8. Positive view of the future
9. Social and emotional connections with other humans
10. Unconditional positive regard

Living an engaging, meaningful, and authentic life

Now let us look at each one of these starting with the first three: living an engaged, meaningful, and authentic life. These three were first formulated by John Seligman who is the founder of positive psychology. What he and others have found is that continuously happy people tend to:

First happy individuals live an engaged life, meaning that they do not see themselves as passive bystanders, but as an active participant in the human experience. These individuals can be identified by how they engage in every aspect of their life including work, family, friends, hobbies, and even rest. They tend to be very curious and want to learn more when they experience new things.

The second is living a meaningful life. Now having a meaningful life does not mean you become president of the United States and work tirelessly towards world peace, or become the top CEO of an organization. No living a meaningful life means that you find meaning in what you do, even the inconvenient tasks of life. Many of the individuals that psychologist has found that are continuously happy are not all successful by western standards in that they not necessarily financially wealthy or have a high-powered position such as doctors or CEO. I can remember reading the story of an elementary school janitor who measured high on a scale of happiness. When he was asked about his work, he said he didn’t think of his job as simply mopping floors and cleaning toilets, but rather preparing a clean and healthy environment for children to learn. I would like the reader to think about how the individual frames their daily work tasks from meaningless – just cleaning toilets – to meaningful – preparing a clean place for children to learn. That is the key to living a meaningful life: being able to take even the most mundane task and find the meaningful purpose.

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 9.18.41 PM.pngThe third notion of this triad is living authentically. Most people think they are acting “real” or “being truly them” but when one digs deeper usually that real person is what we call a persona that the individual is wearing. What is a persona? The word persona was first used by Carl Jung and would eventually evolve into the word personality as we know it in psychology today. But the word persona is a Roman term which is a Greek mask that Roman actors wore when playing a Greek drama. Carl Jung liked this name because he believed that for the most part, we all wear masks and we have masks for different situations, but the true self lays somewhere behind that mask. Now we all must live in a world of social convention, with the exception of Walmart and college classrooms, it is usually not seen as appropriate to wear pajamas to social situations, and conversely while one can, it usually not socially acceptable to go to bed wearing a three-piece suit. So, in many ways, we will always have some type of persona that we must wear in our social world. However, a person who is truly authentic does not hide behind these social conventions. Now, this does not mean showing off your personality by being a loud-mouthed jerk – unless that authentically who you are. No this means truly letting people know who you are as an individual. One of the most authentic individuals I know, whenever engaging in a social group activity would say “I am extremely introverted, so I like to think things through before I talk about them socially, so please do not think me rude for being quiet through the first part of this group project.” Being authentic is the ability to express your needs, wants, and even negative qualities in order for others to have an understanding of who that person is as a human being. In a time of such political polarity, I had the chance to hear a truly authentic person when he said,

“Curtis I am a conservative, I have always voted conservative and even go to many conservative events, but that does not mean I agree with everything that conservatives stand for especially when it comes to their broader views about people in poverty”.

Both the student in the earlier statement and my conservative friend are what one would consider living with authenticity, meaning it okay to have beliefs and ideas and even lean towards one view or another, but being authentic means that one does not become completely entrenched into something that they start acting against their personal beliefs and attitudes and who they are as a person.

These three seem to be essential qualities of a truly happy person, but there are seven others that tend to be very common. We will start with spirituality


screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-9-19-38-pmHappy individuals tend to have a deep sense of spirituality. Whether it is finding meaning in poetic naturalism, and seeing one’s self as an important chain in human evolution and life – or a religious individual who has a strong belief in their faith in God. In the most basic sense spirituality is the belief in something bigger than the self, that brings the individual meaning and purpose beyond just surviving from day to day. Now it is important to say you can be a hardcore atheist and a devoutly religious person and lack spirituality. Some individuals are indoctrinated into their belief system and believe what they believe because that is all they been taught by their family, friends, and communities. Usually, a person becomes spiritual, when they go through some spiritual experience that brings meaning to their life and helps them believe in something beyond their existence. For example, I had a good friend who went to a weekend Christian get away with his spouse, upon returning he found spiritual meaning in his life and has guided his actions since. This friend is doing amazing things working with kids and families. Another good friend of mine has found meaning in not having a religious belief, but having a deep respect and love for human potential and our places in this amazing universe – as she would say. Both individuals may have different belief systems, but they both would are considered highly spiritual in that they have found meaning for their existence beyond the self and simple survival.

Notion of Justice

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-9-20-46-pmIndividuals who tend to be happy have a belief in universal justice. For me, this is much like the idea of karma, in that the universe has ways of balancing out the injustices that we may experience from time to time and ultimately leads to fairness. This idea reminds me of the final justice that many of the domestic violence survivors I have worked with experience. One that comes to mind was a young woman when she was going through the criminal justice system and trying to get justice through the court saw very little help let alone justice, the most her abuser received was 30 days in jail for strangling her until she passed out. She and her kids were abused by this man with little justice over a three-year period. When through other means than the justice system she got out and started building her life on her own. Today she is married to a very loving and non-abusive man and she has become a school teacher. However, her ex-abuser has spent his life in and out of jail and now serving time for drug charges. This example is an example of the just world idea and that individuals eventually get what they deserve and justice, in the end, will always prevail. It is believed by many psychologists that this belief in justice is what helps happy individuals get through difficult times in their lives and can see the light at the end of the darkest tunnel.

Work and Play

Have you ever known someone who when they get to the end of the work week they get bummed and say instead of “I can’t wait until Friday” they say, “I can’t wait until Monday”? If you do know someone like this, you probably met a continuously happy individual. An interview with someone who scored high on this type of happiness stated, “I can’t tell the difference between the joy of spending the day at the beach, versus a day spent in the office.” Now, this is important to state at this point; happy individuals are not workaholics!! But when one lives a meaningful, purposeful, and authentic life both leisure and work become balanced in that one finds equal enjoyment in both.

Positive view of negative emotions and positive view of the future

The seventh and eighth concepts on our list go hand and hand with a qualitative difference. Having a positive view of negative emotions is an affective experience whereas positive view of the future is a cognitive one. A positive view of emotions is the ability to understand that (A) negative emotions are situationally bound, and (B) negative emotions have an important purpose in informing the individual that something is wrong.
Let’s begin with the first concept of emotions as being situationally bound. Emotions occur through an interaction between the person and their environment. The individual includes their current affective state and the person general view of life. Emotions, however, do not occur independently of the context that the individual is in – the situation. However, all too often individuals ignore the situation and feel that the emotions somehow has some transient state that must somehow go back to earlier traumas and experiences. This false belief leads to maladaptive ways of controlling one’s emotions through drinking, drugs, or other self-destructive behaviors. When in reality most negative emotions that individuals commonly experience can be alleviated simply by changing one’s situation. It is kind of like a common Sigmund Freud meme that says “Before diagnosing yourself with depression, make sure you are just not surrounded by assholes.” Truly happy people understand that negative emotions are transient experiences that can be changed by determining the situational cause.

The notion of situational causes leads to the second important aspect in the way happy individuals interpret emotions. Happy individuals understand that negative emotions have an important adaptive purpose in signaling to the individual that there is something wrong in their current situation. They also understand that they have control of their situation and have the ability to change it in some manner. Therefore, they see negative emotions as an opportunity to change rather than some continued state that leads to depression and agony.

The second concept – and number eight on our list – is having a positive view of the future. If you have heard the country song and the saying: “if you are in hell, keep on going, and don’t give up” you understand the idea of having a positive view of the future. I said earlier that happy individuals have the same positive and negative experiences that we all experience. They lose loved ones, experience both marriage, and divorce, they know physical and psychological pain as we all do, but they do something different when they think about the negative experiences. Instead of getting stuck in the negative experience they have a strong belief that an experience can inform us but they do not define us. Using my example of working with individuals who were abused by their spouses, the most successful survivors see their experience as just that a life experience that helped them grow and be a better person. Whereas, individuals who tend to get in the cycle of abuse, tend to allow the abuse to define every aspect of who they are, being the victim becomes their identity. Knowing that we will always have both positive and negative experiences in life, but not one experience determines who we are as an individual, is important in becoming a happy person.

Social and Emotional Connection with others

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-9-22-24-pmIf you have been following my posts, you may remember me writing about loneliness, and how there are two types of loneliness: emotional and social. Emotional loneliness is not having a close emotional relationship with at least one other individual. Social loneliness is not having a sufficient number of social connections and people one knows. Now there is no set number for how many social and emotional relationships one needs. Some individuals need only one emotional relationship but may need a large social network. Whereas others individuals may need several emotional connections but only a few social connections. It is important, to be honest with yourself and be authentic. If you are a high emotional need person, and you have a partner, it is important to express this need in order thwart any unneeded jealousy and problems in an intimate relationship. Conversely, it is important if you need little emotional connections with others it is important to communicate this to your partner especially if they have a high need. I bring these examples up to show the integration between these ten concepts because not being authentic about your social and emotional needs can lead to problems in other domains of one’s life. But let us move on and explain deeper in our need to belong through our connection from others.

If loneliness is the lack of emotional and social connection, it must represent what psychologist who study this a thwarted sense of belonging. Belonging being the need to feel like one has a place both physically and socially. Psychologist Susan Fiske best explains the need for belonging as a means for fulfilling four basic needs of an individual: (1) the need for control, (2) the need for understanding, (3) self-enhancement needs, and (4) the need for trust or to see others as benign. For a full description of these needs, I will refer to the reader to my article entitled “What is Loneliness” for our purposes, it is important to understand the humans are social creators, we cannot live independent of one another. If there is or were a grand designer, humans were designed through our language and use of symbols to work together live together, and experience what we call life together.

Happy people, understand this, they enjoy other people and they engage in their social world. Now, this does not mean if you are an extrovert you immediately have this down and that if you are an introvert you will never experience this type of joy and happiness. I often get asked – or told – that introverts are more miserable individuals because they hate people and can’t form relationships. First, we should say extroverts can hate others as well – we usually spot them in groups as the a**hole of the party or group. A true introvert doesn’t hate being around people, in fact, a true introvert needs to be around others as much as anyone else. The difference is they get energized and refreshed by spending time alone in quiet contemplation. If, however, you have the label of an introvert, but you hate being in a social situation and get anxious about going out, please stop blaming your introversion, you may be suffering from shyness or more serious condition such as social anxiety or social phobia. Okay now that we have gotten past the personality variability issue let’s talk about how other’s increase our happiness.

When we have others we can rely on, talk to, be both angry and sad with (emotional connections) and others that can help us meet our living needs (social connections) life, while it does not change, it does seem to become much more manageable and provides more opportunity to engage in things that make us happy. If there is one thing I would like my reader to do after reading this article, it is to pick up the phone call (or text) everyone you know and simply tell them how much they mean to you. After so many years studying psychology and helping people, I can promise you there is at least someone in your world that is suffering right now, and simply letting them know they are loved and cared for in some cases can mean the difference between life and death, and a minimum it will help someone get beyond their problems.

Unconditional Positive Regard

In the positive psychology literature, you are more likely to run into the term positive regard, but I have included the notion of unconditional positive regard to make our discussion go beyond just increasing one’s happiness, but also becoming a full and complete individual. But let us start with defining what positive regard is as it is experienced by happy individuals. Ever get in a heated conversation with someone who has an opposing view and maybe you ended up frustrated because you feel you cannot get through to them so they could “see the light”? It is a common and often frustrating experience, and it comes from a very basic human fallacy. Most individuals live with the cognitive fallacy that everyone must think and understand things the way that they do, and if someone doesn’t that must mean they are a lower form of life and lack intelligence. This fallacy comes from the mistake that we assume that we see the world as an objective reality, and that reality is the same for everyone. Unfortunately, we do not experience the world as an objective reality, but always through the lens of our personal experiences, beliefs, and attitudes. Since we all come from different experiences, we all see reality slightly different. Don’t believe me? Look on Facebook or watch the news and see how liberals and conservatives talk about each other. With my point proven let us move on to becoming a happier person.

It is said that when a wise person walks in the room, that they understand that everyone comes from a different background and different experiences and therefore their reality and life truths are likely to be different than their own. Conversely, the unwise person believes that everyone’s reality is the same, and therefore if someone doesn’t think the same way they do there must be something organically wrong with them. Continuously happy people take this idea a step further and embrace that everyone is different and enjoy hearing the experiences and understandings of others. Now that is the path to being happy, but I said I wanted to take this a step further to being a complete person.
So far, we have talked about the key components of happiness that have included living a meaningful life, being authentic with others, and having good social and emotional relationships. Now its time to take it a step further to becoming a happy and full person. Carl Rogers was a famous psychologist and therapist who developed a unique form of therapy called humanistic therapy. His belief was that individuals already know the solution to their problems but what they need is a safe and accepting person who will not judge them to discover that solution. He used a humanistic philosophical concept known as self-actualization to explain how this relationship can occur. But first what is self-actualization?

Humanistic psychology grew out of the dismay of Freudian psychology and behavioral psychology which posits that everything we do is predetermined by either uncontrollable unconscious needs or by learned associations. Therefore, everything in life is deterministic according to these views. The humanistic theory was developed to try and explain human motivation and how humans can change their situation given the right resources. They argued that every human has a motivation to become self-actualized or to put in more simple terms to become a complete person. Rogers argued that the way in which a person becomes self-actualized is by having complete understanding and acceptance of who they are. This required, however, to have a true and objective understanding of who the individual is both their good and bad qualities. They must also have the ability to accept and understand their bad qualities and how they can drive their behavior just as much as their good qualities. This idea according to Rogers is the state of self-actualization.

Now if we have complete acceptance for who we are both the good, the bad, and the ugly, this allows us to completely accept other for who they are, including the good and the bad. Meaning we can accept them with no condition and provide them with unconditional positive regard is our aide to help the. In the most basic form, being self-actualized is the ability to live life with no prejudices or hatred against others. Imagine a place where we stop to understand others, and that it is okay for them to be different because you as an individual are beautiful, different, and unique as well.


Before I end our conversation about happiness I want to leave you with a story about the experiences lived by Jews that lived through the German concentration camps during WWII. At the end of WWII, psychologist and psychiatrist noticed that a lot of young soldiers and Marines were coming back with a mental health condition known then as “shell shock” and what we call today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder has devastating effects on the individual personally, socially, and in their community life, and is marked by repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety and stress reactions to trauma the person experienced in the past. Approximately 20% of a given population is susceptible to experience PTSD after a traumatic experience. But after WWII the rates were above 30%, and some have argued they were higher than 50%. A group of psychologists including the famous Jewish psychologist Victor Frankl, started to think that if our trained forces, who went through extensive training for what they experienced are having such high rates of PTSD, the civilian Jewish population must have a much higher rate? So, they went about to assess the surviving Jews that were freed and after years of assessment they found that the PTSD rate among Jews was less than 5% – that is 15% lower than the general population and a lot lower than what was being observed with returning military. In trying to determine why these rates were so low they did several thousand interviews. The psychologist summarized their findings by something one of the survivors said:

“The Germans could bound me, beat me, kill everything I love, BUT there is one thing that the Germans could never enslave, and that was my mind, my mind was always free and could never be taken away”.

With that thought in mind, I leave my reader with love, peace, and I hope many more happy days.

If you have any questions about this articles or would like to know more about happiness and positive psychology please fill-out the following form:


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The Inconvenient Truth About Violence and Homicide in the United States

By: Curtis Peterson ©


Arizona Western College – 2013 – Mentors for Violence Prevention Development Day

16 years ago, I responded to this employment ad for a shelter assistant at a local shelter. The ad required that person have at least completed some course work in social science. Given I was completing my bachelor’s degree in psychology at the time and needed a job, I went ahead and applied. The interview was at the local YWCA, in a large home that was converted into makeshift offices. My interview took place in what was probably once a large dining room, and the director who interviewed me was a large foreboding woman, who when she walked in you could feel and instantly respect her presence. We started the interview with the standard niceties such as greetings and introductions then she asked a question that at the time I did not know but would end up changing my life from that point forward. She asked, “What are domestic violence and sexual assault?” – after a long pause, I said, “Aww umm something my mom and dad said I better not ever do!!??” Well needless to say what was scheduled to be a 20-30 minute interview turned into a two and half hour educational experience on the dynamics of domestic violence and sexual assault. After that, for some reason, that executive director saw something in me that I did not recognize, and went ahead and hired me.



Relationship between age of victim and age of offender for domestic homicides

That interview was a start of a journey that would take me into the deepest minds of victims, survivors, offenders, and psychopathic rapist and murders. It would expose me to violence starting as young as six months of age clear to the oldest victim I worked with who was 88 years old. It would show me the type of violence that doesn’t happen every so often, like mass shootings and terrorist acts, but violence and murder that occurs every day in American households across the United States. In fact, the reason why I titled this paper “The Inconvenient Truth” is because there could literally be a 24-hour news station that just covers domestic homicides and if they didn’t need revenue they could do it commercial free. The reason why this is inconvenient is that what we fear as Americans, such as terrorist and the “rogue” mass shooter, is not what we should be most fearful of, and that is the person living in our house and sleep next to every night. The inconvenient truth is, America does not have a terrorist problem, it has a family problem. A family problem, that has led to brutal violence, torture, and death of millions of Americans, and makes it, so the United States has the highest homicide rate of any of the 26 modern nations. Additionally, in a nation that prides itself on supporting its police forces, every day we place officers in situations that give them the highest risk of not going home to their family: a domestic disturbance call. Notice I did not say a riot, gang shooting, mass shooting, or terrorist activity – no – our law enforcement is more likely to be shot and killed by a married couple who are arguing and it has turned violent. Yes, the bottom line once again even our protectors are not safe in our American homes.


If you are reading this, I hope you are feeling the dissonance, and hope that I will say something that diverts the blame of violence in the United States away from families to some group. I know, blaming others, would “feel” nice, but unfortunately, it would just be covering up the truth about the nature of violence in the United States. Sorry domestic homicide and family violence only have one source, it cannot be blamed on minority groups, white privilege, ISIS, Muslims, Christianity, LGBT groups, or yes even those godless atheists. Sadly, the source of domestic homicide is the family, community, and beliefs we hold about each other. I am not talking religious beliefs. I am talking beliefs about what we think we have the right to when something in our family goes wrong. I am talking about when a person loses a sense of power, or when a person does not behave to our expectations – to act out and force those individuals to get them back in line. If you do not believe me scroll through your Facebook and see how conservatives and liberals bully each other because they do not hold the same perspective, or how there is this standard that men and women must hold to be a “good boyfriend” or a “good girlfriend.” Let stop kidding ourselves that we are a good and virtues people and instead let us start acting like good and virtues people. If you value human life, then stop giving a blind eye to people who assault life through their actions and behaviors. Stop doing what a psychopathic serial killer told me once and that saying and thinking “I like you Mr. Peterson, but you should know I could shove that pencil in your ear and through your head and walk away and think nothing about it”. We do this every day, with our insults without understanding, with our ignoring of family problems, and with our focus on things that should not evoke as much fear as what we do to each other in our homes and communities.


Graph indicates the increase in infant homicides between the 70s and 90s, it has kept that steady increase up to today and is expected to continue unless something changes.

Let us be real about who we are as a nation, while all forms of violence including homicide have been on the steady decrease in the United States since the 1990s, there is one that has been on a noticeable fast increase. The type of violence that has been on the steady increase starting in 2000 is infanticide. Yes, United States citizens are killing more infants than we did since the 1940s. No this is not abortions or some psychopathic murder issue, this is out of mommy’s womb infant under the age of two who are being killed – on purpose – by their parents or primary caregiver. I am hoping this information is sobering, to a Nation that prides itself on peace and freedom. If we are truly a nation that values the life of others, especially children, then why is there no national movement to stop infant homicide, which outnumbers abortions 6 to 1? Or a call on governmental interventions that protect and honor the safety and life of our most vulnerable population?



Relation between homicides and immigration rates in the United States

With this in mind, I like to bring home the point that this is an American issue. I know we have a national movement to limit immigration, but I am hoping by this point the reader is starting to see we do not have an “other people problem” we have an “us problem.” Indeed, when we look at immigration, we find that after a period of increased immigration we see a marked reduction in violence and homicide in the United States. That right, violence comes from the American culture, and when we bring in diversity through immigration we make us less violent. So, if you want to blame our violence problems on Mexican or Muslim immigrants just know you are a source of the problem and not a solution.



Grandpa and Granddaughter – reason I will continue to fight.

If you have made it through this article without getting angry and frustrated and deciding you did not want to read further, I thank you and would like to close with a few remarks about the time I have spent in the field of violence intervention and prevention. First, as the people who are close to me and know me, I have been trying to escape this field since almost the day I started. Most of my personal problems have centered around my desire to not to deal with other people’s violence and the desire to be blissfully ignorant to all the pain and suffering that I heard on a daily life as a professional. Even my education has tried to bail me out, my master’s degree focused on organizational psychology, and my doctorate has focused on social psychology, which I hoped would put a layer of distance between me and violence. Sadly for me, these choices have to lead me deeper into the understanding of violence. Indeed, it has helped me recognize that we do not have a psychopath problem, a mental illness problem, or even a gun problem – no, we have a community and family problem. Every time, I thought I had escaped the field it has a way of dragging me back in kicking and screaming. The latest is my dismay on national attention being placed on the not so real problems of violence and homicide in the United States. All in all, I have experienced what a clinical person, social worker, criminologist, and criminal justice experts only think or dream of having, and I would trade it all to be able to live in a community where neighbors trust each other and strangers are viewed as potential friends instead of threats. I would trade my experiences knowing a child is born into a world where parents and caregivers care and nurture them, a world where intimate partners did not use each other for their own selfish needs but instead lifted each other up and supported one another. Finally, I trade my experiences for a United States that actually care about the humanity and welfare of others on this little planet. But, I have come to the conclusion that unless I keep fighting and helping people those dreams will never come true, my friends let us not get to our death bed thinking “I could have done more, but I didn’t.”. I hope you will join me in this crusade.


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The amazing mental life of babies

By: Curtis Peterson ©

If I were to do my education all over, I believe that I would have dedicated my life to child psychology and study in infants, but at least as a social psychologist, I get to study and understand the social-developmental aspects of infancy. In fact right now is an exciting time in understanding the psychological and social life of a baby and parents can start capitalize on these findings. This article is aimed at providing parents with knowledge about the life of their infant, this is not an extensive article but will instead focus on findings in social-developmental psychology over the past 15 years. We are going to start with one premise, this premise I think parents – especially moms – have known for a long time, but only recently have been proven by science. That premise is:

babies have a much more complex and dynamic psychological world than they have traditionally been granted to them by society.

What makes this premise significant? Up until the last 15 years, it was believed that infants had a rather simple existence – sleep, eat, and poop – this belief was made on two assumptions. Assumption one is that our cognitive existence relied on our ability to symbolize the world via language. The second assumption was, since babies “act” more like lower forms of animals they must not have the full mental capacity to be entirely human. The problem with both of these assumption – at least from a scientific perspective – is that these assumptions were based on a reliance that required language to understand one’s mental world. Meaning that we had no way, until the past about 20 years, to understand and evaluate the mental world of infants and babies, which unfortunately was translated into those two false assumptions. However, thanks to technological advances and research methods that allows us to peer into the mental world of babies, we now recognize the complexity of an infant and babies mental life. Here are just some of the things that we have learned about infants in the last 15 years:

  • Babies have moral discrimination ability that we can detect as early as four months of age.
  • Babies – like adults – try to identify features of their environment that they have control over including:
    • Rationality (making logical sense of a situation),
    • Consistency (want to have a predictable experience),
    • Efficiency (ability to find the most efficient method of solving a problem),
    • Normality (preferring situations that are comfortable and avoiding situations that are out of the norm).
  • Babies can identify the emotional states of others more accurately than adults.
  • Babies can differentiate between adults that are good (i.e. a picture of Martin Luther King) versus bad (i.e. a picture of Hitler). Interesting this discrimination ability is present as early as four months but disappears as the child starts to master language around 18-24 months.
  • Mirror neuron activation – the ability to experience the actions of others neurologically (think about last time you cried at a movie during an emotional scene that was your mirror neurons activating) – appears as early as three months of age. Neurons that are expected to analyze the emotional and psychological state of other (commonly referred to as the mentalizing system) begin to activate as early as six months. What does this mean? Infants and babies – at least from a brain activation perspective – are analyzing and predicting the mental and psychological state and well-being of others as early as six months of age.
  • Babies have a fundamental understanding of mathematic principles and geometry. Again, something we start to lose as we develop language and start socializing in our education and learning environments. – For those individuals who think they are bad at math, you were better than you think at one point in your life.

Many more fascinating findings can be reviewed, but from the social-developmental approach, the ideas listed above are the concepts I would like to focus on from a parenting perspective.

img_4243 How many have heard the following conversation?

Well-intending person: “you really shouldn’t talk like that around your baby.”
Parent: “it is okay she can’t understand what I am saying”

What is the fallacy that the parent is committing? First, let us review some basics of communication 101. The first thing we know about communication is that it is about 90% how something is said and only 10% the actual words used. The 90% includes the tone, body posture, emotional state, and behaviors of the communicators. As mentioned in the above bullet points infants and babies can understand this 90% as early as four months of age and will interpret the behavior and emotional state as such. This means with no comprehension of language a baby understands what is being said by the way it is being presented.

I bring this point to light because as a psychologist I am often asked why a baby is “acting out,” or “throwing a fit,” and upon analysis of the situation it is almost always the infant reacting to the emotional and social world of the adults are them. Remember as pointed out above infants need – just like adults – rationality, consistency, efficiency, and normality. Just like adults when these cognitive needs are violated we act out, become stressed, and have anxiety – it doesn’t matter if you are an adult, a child, an infant, or a baby. Often I find that when the parent adjusts their behaviors and environment to meet these basic psychological needs, the “tantrum” and “misbehaviors” go away.

The second lesson we can learn from current studies of infants and babies is that they have a better moral compass than most adults. Sadly, when the child develops language we quickly socialize this natural moral ability out of children. But – Parents can use this knowledge to help develop an infant’s moral development. For example, most babies will develop some form a stranger aversion, meaning they can be slow to warm up to individuals who they have never seen or rarely see. This is normal, however, when a baby reacts to someone new – or someone they knew – in an extremely aversive way, it would be good advice to the parent to take a closer look at that situation. Per the studies that have been conducted on moral develop your child is seeing something dangerously aversive about that individual that you are not. It would be against my better judgment not to warn parents to not leaving their baby alone with that person.

While there is much much more to say about the mental world of infants and babies, I think for at least this blog this is a good place to stop. If you would like more information on the social world of infants, please fill out the form below with your question(s).



America Needs A Superordinate Goal

By: Curtis Peterson ©

What does it mean to be an ‘American’ (aka United States Citizen)? I think everyone in the United States asks this question at least some time during their lifetime – I know I have. But I would be willing to bet, that the answers while using the same symbolic words – such as freedom and bravery – these words have a completely different meaning for many groups. This can be seen very clearly in the deep divisions between political ideals and between racial groups. I often wonder if there is anything that can actually bring the United States away from division and instead have a shared meaning and life goals? In my reading and contemplation on this matter, I can’t stop thinking about a famous research program – Robber Cave Experiment –  by Muzafer Sherif.

rcsignWhat Sherif wanted to test is a developing theory in the study of group dynamics called Realistic Conflict Theory. By this time, social psychologist had already established that all someone needs to do to create prejudice behaviors between two groups, is to randomly assign them to either a group ‘A’ or group ‘B’. This became known as the minimal group paradigm.The problem was, is that in the real world very seldom are we randomly assigned to a group, we always come from a group or enter a group, that has a history and connection with one another. Realistic Conflict Theory aimed to explain how conflict occurs in the real world where conflict due to competition and resources matter. What Sherif did in his study was to conduct a three-week summer camp where young boys all around the age of 10 to 11, were randomly assigned to one of two camps, for which the two groups had no contact for the first week. Over the following week ,the two groups played competitive games against each other. What Sherif wanted to test, is whether mere contact (aka mere exposure effect) between the two groups in the absence of competition would reduce conflict in the third week. What he found was is that no, in fact, conflict got worse and resulted in violence and vandalism (sound familiar democrats and republicans?).

sherif-image-chapter-sevenHow did Sherif ultimately reduce conflicts between the two groups and increase intergroup liking? What Sherif did, he implemented a set of superordinate goals and task that benefit the entire camp instead of just one group or the other. Examples included having them rope tow a truck to camp and filling a water tank. These superordinate goals had two qualities (1) they benefited both groups, and (2) they forced both groups to work together. After having the boys complete these superordinate goals not only did the vandalism and violence go away but, scores of intergroup liking between the two groups increased significantly.

Now there has been times that the United States that we have seen the Robber Cave effect, two immediate examples included the bombing of Pearl Harbor and 09/11. After both of these events – for a short time anyways – significantly decreased prejudicial behaviors, hate crimes, and violence. Both of these events created a superordinate goal for the American people, in the first, it was to seek revenge on Japan, and the latter was to care for those injured and fallen and to seek out those who caused 09/11. The question that I think that we should pose, is will it take another 09/11 or Pearl Harbor for us as a people to see eye to eye and let go of our divisions and difference and unite as one people?

Responding to Criticism on my notion of loneliness

By: Curtis Peterson ©


Recently I have been criticized for my views on loneliness, even though these views are deeply seated in current research on the topic of loneliness. I would like to respond to some of the criticisms I have received. For this blog, I want to take on one of the most salient criticisms I have received

Criticism 1: Loneliness is not a product of an individual’s social world, but rather a disposition of a person and psychological disorders.

This criticism mostly comes from individuals who work in the mental health field, and work with individuals who report being extremely lonely. In this view, many of the individuals who are upset with my notion that loneliness is deeply seated within one’s social experiences, claim that loneliness is part of one’s psychological disorder and therefore should be treated on the individual level.

However, there are fundemental problems with this argument. The first comes from science dating back to the 1940s and is supported by current research, and that is loneliness is not a symptom of psychological disorders, but are a consequence of the social allienation most individuals with psychological disorders experience.

There is only one exception to this rule, and that is for individuals who experience depression. But, loneliness, when someone is in a bout of depression, is qualitatively different than the normative loneliness that everyone experiences. Loneliness during depression drives us away from seeking social and emotional connections, while normative loneliness drives us to seek out a social and emotional connection to alleviate the negative emotional state associated with the experience of loneliness. For me, there is another very important reason to separate loneliness from depression, and that comes from recent research conducted with individuals who have made serious suicide attempts and individuals who display suicidal thoughts. According to this research, individuals who are diagnosed with depression seem to only have suicidal ideation and attempts when they also score high on scales of normative loneliness – such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale. This is important because it provides a window into what drives individuals who are experiencing depression and when they are at risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts.

The second fundamental problem with loneliness only being a feature of psychological disorders that are self-driven is that everyone can experience loneliness regardless of their mental state. In fact, loneliness is a fact of being human. One reason that some individuals may argue that it is not is we all have varying degrees of the need to have social and emotional connections with other individuals. Indeed, most of the individuals that disagree with me have very low needs for social and emotional relationships. Loneliness and social connection as a drive system are very much like our system for hunger and thirst. Some individuals need for more food intake – and make sure they get three meals a day -and some individuals only have the desire to eat maybe once during the day. Loneliness is the same way, some individuals need a constant stream of socialization and emotional connection, whereas others need very little. Unfortunately the high-level person – especially in American culture – are considered needy, dependent, and weak – whereas individuals who have very little need are seen as strong and independent. While I would argue that being at either extreme can lead to dysfunction – just like too much food can lead to obesity, and too little food can lead to anorexia – the assumption that low social need people are stronger than high need individuals is just empirically false. There is no evidence in the empirical literature to suggest that individuals differ on how “strong” and “independent” they are based on their need for social and emotional connections.

My main goal for refuting the claim that loneliness is a feature of one’s disposition is in our modern world individuals are becoming more and more disconnected from each other. Evidence indicates that loneliness and the negative physical and psychological consequences of continued chronic loneliness are on the increase especially among at risk populations such as teens, elderly, and individuals who are members of stigmatized groups. Therefore, loneliness as an increasing epidemic in our society needs to be addressed on the social and cultural level, and we should let go of old unsupported notions that loneliness is a feature of one’s disposition. I make this plea that we should look at loneliness as a disease of society because the only long-term solution and “cure” for loneliness are for one to meet their social and emotional connections with others, through engaging in their social life.


By: Curtis Peterson ©


This blog describes the historical development of the study of loneliness


Early conceptions of loneliness associated the experience of loneliness with more dispositional and personality qualities rather than as a part of normal social motivational processes. Additionally, according to early conceptualizations of loneliness, the experience of loneliness often leads to dysfunctional behaviors. Early focus on consequences of loneliness included study of the lonely housewife and cheating behaviors (Sells, 1948) or the lonely soldier drinking excessively and engaging in sexually promiscuous behaviors (Frosdick, 1918). Indeed, as will be indicated later in this chapter, individuals who experience severe levels of loneliness can lead to dysfunctional ways in alleviating that loneliness. The issue of these early conceptualizations of loneliness and consequences is that they were antidotal and were not measured by any objective means. As far as studies that directly address loneliness, according to the PsycINFO database, the earliest research was by Watson (1930) who looked at what makes educated individuals happy. In this exploration Watson found that loneliness was negatively associated with happiness, suggesting that loneliness was a dysfunctional process. Later in 1948, research by Thompson found that individuals who scored high on different psychosis scales on the ‘Minnesota Multphasic Personality Inventory’ (MMPI) also scored high on a subscale of loneliness. This lead Thompson to make similar conclusions as Watson in 1930 that loneliness was (a) a dysfunctional process and (b) that loneliness must somehow be more related to one’s disposition rather than the situational or social experiences of a person. The other aspect of Thompson’s research that will influence contemporary research is the notion that loneliness is closely related to depression, and is a key symptom. Indeed, current research has found a strong association between the experience of loneliness in one-time period (ex. middle childhood) and the development of depression in later time period (ex. adolescence) (Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014). Additionally, depressive symptoms tend to include analogous experiences of loneliness (Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014).

In contrast to Thompson (1948) where loneliness is seen as a feature of psychosis, Brooks (1933) asked rural psychiatrist’s whether social isolation (as defined as monotony and lonesomeness) was the cause of psychosis. While the results were mixed, Brooks concluded that social isolation is symptomatic of psychosis but does not cause psychosis. Rather, he concluded that poor socializing skills and coping skills that evolved from psychotic personality more likely lead to isolation and the experience of lonesomeness. This conclusion is used to explain the association between early experiences of loneliness and later experiences of depression (Jones, et al. 2011; Anderson, Miller, Riger, Dill, & Sedikides,1994; Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010; Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014). For example, Jones, et al. (2011) found an association between loneliness in middle school children and adolescence’s experience of depression. These authors concluded that the experience of loneliness in middle childhood thwarted these children’s ability to develop socializing skills necessary to be a part of forming social relationships in adolescence leading to depression. The problem with Brooks (1933) and Jones, et al. (2011) conclusion is that they rely on descriptive and correlational methods, so it is purely theoretical on how early experiences of loneliness indeed predicts later development of depression.

The next stage in the development of the understanding of loneliness came from Sullivan in 1953 who was one of the first to define loneliness as a developmental – personality process. That is to say that loneliness is driven by the person’s disposition and attachment that occurs in early childhood. This idea of attachment and loneliness is still supported in today’s literature (Baumeister, & Leary, 1995), however, the notion of the lonely personality is not strongly supported (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010). Rather loneliness is seen more as a need drive, similar to the need for food, where some individuals need a lot and some people need just a little to sustain their functioning (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Probably the greatest legacy of Sullivan’s (1953) work is that it also provided a consistent definition of loneliness as “the need for intimate exchange with fellow being … with respect to satisfaction and security” (p. 261), the loss for which according to Sullivan causes “the driving of this system may integrate interpersonal situations despite severe anxiety.” (p. 262). In other words, the experience of loneliness creates a negative anxiety state which motivates an individual to relieve that negative state through interpersonal contact, despite the anxiety that accompanies the loneliness state. While this definition will be expounded on, specifically by Weiss (1973/1985), this definition remains the basic way psychologists have defined loneliness since.

The next evolution of the study of loneliness came in the 1970s with Weiss (1973/1985) book “Loneliness: The experience of Emotional and Social Isolation”. In this work Weiss argues that there are two types of loneliness. The first Weiss defined as emotional loneliness which is a negative affective state in which a person lacks close emotional ties with someone else. The second is social loneliness, or in Weiss’s terms social isolation, as a state of lacking sufficient social connections. Weiss used the term social isolation to emphasize the point that individuals who experience social isolation evaluate not having a sufficient number of social connections and social support in their life. Social isolation differs from emotional loneliness, in that emotional loneliness is the feeling of loss of close emotional relationship(s), whereas social isolation is a lack of sufficient social relationships, where close emotional or utility social support type relationships. Research since Weiss has supported the notion that there are two different types of loneliness, mainly from psychometric evidence (Vassar, & Crosby, 2008). The term social isolation continues to be used in contemporary research as defining social loneliness whereas the term loneliness often refers to emotional loneliness (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Capitanio, 2014). In addition to differentiating the two types of loneliness, Weiss (1973/1985) also introduced the idea that loneliness was not a dysfunctional process, but rather an ordinary motivational socializing processes. That is to say, according to Weiss, we are all driven to maintain a certain level of social and emotional connection and when our subjective experience goes below that individual threshold, we experience the negative state of loneliness. This, according to Weiss, drives us to either seek out emotional or social relationships. However, as will be presented in the contemporary research sections, individuals do not always go about seeking social connection in functional ways when experiencing loneliness (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010).

In the 1980s and 1990s researchers became more and more interested in the reasons why individuals experience loneliness, beyond the subjective threshold, most likely driven by standardized measures such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russel, Peplau, &Ferguson, 1978, Russel, 1996), which remains the most cited loneliness measurement scale used today (Ang, Mansor, & Tan, 2014). Since originally introduced, the UCLA Loneliness Scale has seen three revisions and development of two short forms of the measurement tool (Durak, & Senol-Durak, 2010). Additionally, the measure is the most translated scale on loneliness and has been translated and validated for populations from Zimbabwe (Wilson, Cutts, Lees, Mapungwana, & Maunganidze, 1992) to one of the most recent translations for the Turkish culture by Durak and Senol-Durak in 2010. The UCLA Loneliness Scale can be found in Appendix A.

With the advent of psychometric measures, some notable research that would influence the field up to current times were developed. From a cognitive perspective Conoley and Gerber (1985) investigated how loneliness affects reframing process of viewing the self and others. One of the more significant works that came out of the early 1990s was WcWhirter (1990), who provided one of the first reviews of the literature on loneliness, and the implications of counseling and research. Significant to WcWirter’s review was the presentation of data that indicated loneliness is a unique experience separate from any other dysfunctional state whether social (loss of loved one) or internal (depression or distressing experience) experiences. Indeed, WcWirter’s assertions have continued to be supported by current research (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010). Other research worth noting of the early 1990s is the work of Lunt (1991), who continued the attributional work done by Conoley and Garber in 1985 and provided as causal model of loneliness based on attributional models. Using network and cluster analysis techniques, Lunt (1991) developed a thirteen variable model that clustered into five different groups. These clusters include: cluster one (physical unattractive and unpleasant personality), cluster two (others’ own groups-relationships, others’ lack of trying, and others’ fears), cluster three (impersonal situations and lack of opportunity), cluster four (lack of knowledge, lack of trying, shyness, and fear of rejection), and cluster five (pessimism and unlucky). While it is important to understand that these clusters developed not under causal experimental design, but by using psychometrics measures and self-report, they tend to support other self-report studies, but caution should be taken as this is not an experimental causal model but a psychometric – theoretical causal model. The significant outcome of Lunt’s (1991) study that is still an underlying assumption of the experience of loneliness today is the subjective cognitive evaluation. That is to say, loneliness suffered by an individual comes from a subjectively calculated estimate of experiencing of either loss of social connections or loss of close emotional connections with others. It is this evaluation that drives an individual attribution of to state of being, in Lunt’s work usually evaluated within one of the five clusters.

The 1990s study of loneliness saw a lot of attention and can be summarized in two late 1990 articles by Rockach and Brock (1997) on loneliness and life changes and Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) article entitled “Emotion”. By the late 1990s with the advent of more accessible use of computers and statistical software, more studies on loneliness using more advanced statistical methodology such as factorial analysis continued to garner support for a five factor model of loneliness that Lunt (1991) proposed. By the late 1990s, a five factor model which included (1) emotional distress, (2) social inadequacy and alienation, (3) growth and discovery, (4) interpersonal isolation, and (5) self-alienation seemed to be well support with-in the literature (Rockach & Brock, 1997). Work that supported this evidence and expanded on different dimensions of loneliness was that of Rockach and Brock in 1997.

Rockach and Brock (1997) investigated the five-factor model using a general population sample (versus traditional convenient sample of college students) that included 633 participants ranging in age from 13 to 87. In addition to using a general population sample, Rockach and Brock tested to see if there was variation among these five factors on five other variables that included (1) gender, (2) relationship status, (3) chronic or episodic loneliness, (4) current or past experience of loneliness, and (5) age at which loneliness is or was experienced. According to their findings, men’s experience of loneliness had greater loading on interpersonal isolation and perceived social alienation. Whereas women did not differ from the general population. The gender difference tends to be consistent with current findings with men experiencing loneliness more frequently, especially as they age (Victor & Bowling, 2012). For relationships, they found that individuals who were married experience loneliness the most intensely, and loaded heavily on growth and discovery, interpersonal isolation, and self-alienation. While consistent with current research (Segrin, Powell, Givertz, & Brackin, 2003) and research before Rockach and Brock (1997), divorced individuals experienced loneliness most frequently.

The third variable tested by Rockach and Brock (1997) was episodic versus chronic loneliness. According to these researchers by this time there was growing evidence that the experience of loneliness can lie on a continuum between individuals who tend to experience loneliness on a chronic basis to those who experience loneliness on an episodic level. At this time, chronic loneliness was seen as part of one’s personality, whereas episodic loneliness was event driven and was experienced by most of the population regardless of personality. The personality view of loneliness has since changed, as loneliness has been seen more as a natural driving force. Current researchers are finding evidence of more of a drive model analogous to food, where some people feel the need to consume more food than do other individuals, there are some individuals who have the need to find continued reductions in loneliness whereas others need minimal social and emotional contact to be satisfied (Lieberman, 2013).

Of interest in Rockach and Brock’s (1997) research was their focus on whether someone was currently experiencing loneliness, or if they were recalling past experiences of loneliness. Consistent with previous population rate research both in the 1990s (Lunt, 1991) and current (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008), which suggests at any given time, about 25% of the population is experiencing loneliness, Rockach and Brock’s sample consisted of 30% slightly but not significantly above the population rate. According to their findings, the weight in which individuals who are currently experiencing loneliness significantly differ from individuals who were recalling episodes of loneliness in their past. Current lonely individuals weighted higher on social alienation, growth and discovery, and self-depreciation. With self-depreciation, the most salient aspects were social inadequacy and self-alienation, whereas individuals recalling episodes of loneliness weighted more heavily on emotional distress.

The most significant parts of the 1990s that contributed to the knowledge base on loneliness was the systematic investigations of the features of loneliness, represented in this review by the work of Lunt (1991) and Rockach and Brock (1997). The last article that will be reviewed before moving on to more contemporary issues are that of Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) on emotions. It should be noted that John Cacioppo has become one of the leading research experts in the field of loneliness and currently the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago where he has a robust research lab dedicated to the investigation of loneliness. One of the earlier works of Cacioppo, which included his colleague Wendi Gardner, was in 1999 in an article on emotions that emphasized three topics that would influence the study of emotions and loneliness (1) methodological issues, (2) relationship between emotions and cognition, and (3) the affective system which underlie emotions.

Methodological issues that were raised by Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) was for on advocating for the increased integration between the use of standardized measurements and neurological investigation tools such as fMRI imaging techniques. As will be seen in the last couple sections of this historical review, the last ten years has seen a robust increase and interest in the neurological processes associated with loneliness. By this time these authors’ argued that there had been developed several ways to measure emotions (i.e. self-report, indirect measures, and non-verbal measures) and that the field should continue the use and development of these tools. However, despite their advocacy for more lab-based studies, they also stated the field needs to address the ecological validity of the studies of emotions. In the context of loneliness, this call for more ecological validity will be seen in many of the contemporary studies that will be reviewed that investigates how loneliness is experienced within one’s community (Smith, 2012). Additionally, Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) argued that increased attention needed to be placed on socioemotional developmental aspects of loneliness. Again as will be indicated in the next section on contemporary issues, emphasis has been placed on socio-developmental processes of loneliness through childhood (Jones, Schinka, Van Dulman, Bossarte, & Swahn, 2011) to adulthood (Fokkema, Gierveld, & Dykstra, 2012).

The second area that Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) addressed was the relationship between cognition and emotions. They noted that that relationship between an individual’s emotion and an individual’s cognition (rationality) have been seen since the Greek philosopher times as an adversarial one with emotions being seen as blinding a person’s rational senses and abilities. However, as noted by Cacioppo and Gardner “[a]lthough the obstacles of a civilized world still occasionally call forth blind rage, emotions are increasingly recognized for the constructive role they play in higher forms of human experience” (p. 194). In other words, Cacioppo and Gardner argue that emotions have a key role in signaling that something must change and providing motivation to enact change, in a rational manner. Indeed, loneliness today is seen not as a self-defeating emotional process, but rather a negative emotional state that motivates the individual to seek out social connection in order to alleviate. While this may not be the case for some individuals who experience loneliness who try to alleviate it through dysfunctional means such as alcohol consumption, promiscuous sexual activity, or further social withdrawal leading to more loneliness and potential development of depressive symptoms, the majority of individuals’ loneliness leads to seeking out social and emotional connection with others (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010).

In Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) paper they state “evolutionary forces do not value knowledge or truth per se but species survival” (p.198) and they go on to state when explaining the differentiation between hostile and threatening stimuli that “the human brain and body have been shaped by natural selection to perform this affective categorization and respond accordingly” (p.198). In the previous paragraph it was noted that emotional signals can aid in cognitive appraisal and increase the ability to make immediate and rational decisions. However, as can be seen by the statements just made, it is important not to overlook the evolutionary processes that underlie the affective system. This is the third point that Cacioppo and Gardner made in trying to understand and investigate emotions. There are two issues to the affective system that must be discussed in understanding the affective response of the individual, first is the learning process, in which affective experienced are shaped the classical conditioning and operant conditioning processes. The second is the understanding that emotions seem to have a two channel system one aimed at identifying and responding to threats and the other identifying and responding to safety and appetitive needs. When it comes to loneliness the threat channel may explain why individuals become more hypervigilant and weary of other’s intentions when feeling lonely (Lodder, Scholte, Clemens, Engels, Goosens, & Verhagen, 2015), whereas the safety and appetitive channel attempts to find a way to fulfill an individual social and social-emotional needs (Chang, et al., 2014). From a learning aspect, this maybe how individuals form poor habits when it comes to alleviating loneliness. For example, a person may realize that when they drink and become intoxicated they feel less threat and more social which alleviates their lonely state. Therefore, they learn that their loneliness can temporarily lowered through drinking. Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) article provided a framework for understanding the methodological, cognitive, affective variables that should be taken into account when studying emotions to the present day. Indeed, as will be review in the contemporary research section, researchers try to connect individuals experience of loneliness between neurological mechanism (methodology), cognitive system, and affective systems in order to understand how these systems respond to the environment and stimuli to try and understand the emotional state of loneliness.

The last evolution in the history of the study of loneliness fully developed within that last sixteen years with work from Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) in their book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”, Hawkley, and Cacioppo (2010) in their article “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms” and Cacioppo, Cacioppo, and Capitanio (2014) in their article “Towards a Neurology of Loneliness” all of which describe the neurological basis of loneliness and the associated outcomes of prolonged loneliness. Additionally, they provide a framework for understanding loneliness as a part of an evolutionary advantage through social living, providing loneliness as a key negative emotional drive to engage a person in action when they experience insufficient amounts of social connection. These issues will be further explored in the contemporary section on loneliness in this chapter.

Before moving to more contemporary research two issues must be explored, the first is the difference between loneliness as defined by Weiss (1973/1985) and loneliness that is experienced when one has depression. The second is the difference between the experience of loneliness and the experience of social rejection. Loneliness and depression seem to be intimately intertwined as loneliness is a feature of depression (Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014). However, being lonely does not necessarily means one is depressed (Cicognani, Klimstra, & Goossens, 2014).

Loneliness as a property of depression is not new, however as can be seen in this review, depression and loneliness have a long standing relationship. What seems to differ between normative loneliness (i.e. loneliness that experienced whenever there is a discrepancy in social connection) and depressive loneliness, seems to be the motivational state. That is, individuals who experience loneliness while depressed tend to withdraw from opportunities to regain social connection whereas individuals who are experiencing normative loneliness have a motivation to alleviate the negative emotions it produces through seeking out social opportunities (de Minzi, 2006). Why loneliness has a different effect when a person is depressed versus not depressed is still under investigation. Research by Segrin, Powell, Givertz, and Brackin (2003) did research on didactic couples who one or both were experiencing depression suggests that loneliness becomes part of the negative affective-cognitive rumination cycle, and therefore instead of seeking out social connection the negative emotions associated with loneliness reinforces the person’s belief, attitudes, and behaviors, including their lack of abilities to create meaningful social connections.

From Segrin, Powell, Givertz, and Brackin (2003) research one can glean processes that are present when experiencing loneliness in that it includes a negative affective state (e.g. feeling anxious), a cognitive state (e.g. appraisal of social situation), and behavioral/motivational state (e.g. seeking out social connection). From Segrin, Powell, Givertz, and Brackin (2003) research it seems that depression interrupts the motivational and behavioral process (ex. withdraw from social situations) by creating a different evaluation of the person affective state (ex. anxious because lack of relationships) and cognitive appraisal (ex. I must be anxious because I am not good at relationships).

A second distinction that needs to be made before moving on is the distinction between social rejection and loneliness. Mainly, how do these two experiences differ from one another or do they? The best evidence for the differences between social rejection and loneliness come from neurological studies using fMRI to measure different activation during tasks where individuals are lonely versus not lonely and other studies that measure brain activity when someone experiences some type of social rejection. Research of this type has indicated that different brain regions become active when experiencing rejection versus being in a lonely state. For example, research by Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams (2003) and Eisenberger (2012) had individuals experience simulated social rejection while in an fMRI machine. This activity known as “cyber ball” requires a person to pass a ball on a video screen to one of two other players. In the social rejection scenario, the two other players stop passing the ball to the participant. When measuring activation in the brain, the researchers found that more the person experience social distress (i.e. rejection) the more of the area of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) activated. Interestingly the dACC is also activated when a person experiences physical pain. However, similar research done on lonely individuals develops a different pattern. Instead, area associated with motivation (ventral striatum, caudate nucleus, and temporal gyrus) and emotions (amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus) become active under different lonely stimuli conditions (Cacioppo, Norris, Decety, Monteleone, & Nubaum, 2008; Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Capitanio, 2014).

These studies potentially highlight the difference between rejection – as pain – and loneliness – as motivational emotion, there should be some caution in interpreting such studies. First they compare different regions of the brain under different types of procedures and activities. Second and most importantly, in the rejection condition individuals experience the state of rejection while having their brain scanned. Whereas as in the loneliness condition this is a pre-disposed state in which comparisons between individuals who scored low on a loneliness scale are compared to individuals who score high on a loneliness scale. Therefore, while these studies provide starting evidence that there is a distinction between rejection and loneliness, there is much more work that needs to be done in this area. Additionally, independent replications of Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams (2003) and Eisenberger (2012) work have failed (Cacioppo, et al. 2013). This indicates that while there may be a differentiation between social rejection and loneliness based on neural pathways, much more work needs to be done to identify exactly what the differences are and how they manifest themselves in the neural system.

Theoretical Framework of Loneliness

By: Curtis Peterson ©


Suicide and the sacred

I have been asked a lot lately why I think a person’s social identity would reduce a person’s experience of loneliness. So I have decided instead of retyping the same thing over and over I would just provide a link to the theoretical framework of identity and loneliness that I have developed over the past few years.

Theoretical Foundation

In this section the theoretical basis for the hypothesis that saliency of social identity may reduce an individual’s current subjective experience of loneliness will be explored. Figure 1 represented the combination of four formalized theories that together explain the theoretical relationship between social identification and loneliness (figure 1. Proposed model of loneliness reduction through social identification).

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Based on the theories that will be presented after Figure 1, the theoretical model is based on the assumption that emotions occur through the cognitive appraisal of a person’s current situation, this is represented in the first three boxes of figure 1, starting from left to right. Under situation, one will note that saliency of one’s social identity is important in this model, as it will be argued that saliency of one’s identity is important in the evaluation of one’s situation and determines one’s evaluation of loneliness. Additionally, two other factors have a role in the appraisal process, (1) past emotional memories, and (2) social categorization and social identification. Both of these factors are used by the individual to determine whether the current situation is one that is potentially harmful to the individual (part emotional memories) and the importance of the saliency of the person’s social identity (social categorization and social identification). Based on these initial appraisal of the situation, emotional memories, and identity, the person will evaluate the situation as either they belong or they are lonely in the given situation.

An example of how this process may work in the real world is a student who identifies with be a college student at a given college – let us call this ABC University. In a given evaluative situation, for example, being home during the summer away from school mates and the ABC University environment. The individual may evaluate this situation as lacking in strong social connection and identity, and therefore, may evaluate their situation as lonely and experience the desire to return from summer break early, the alleviate the state of loneliness. Once the student returns to ABC University and the situation makes their identity as ABC University student salient again, and the shared bond (categorization) and similar connection (emotional belonging), the individual experiences an increase in belonging and a reduced feeling of loneliness.

The need to belong.

To understand the interplay between loneliness and social settings it important to start with a meta-theory of the need to belong (Fiske, 2013; Lieberman, 2013; Cacioppo, & Patrick, 2008). Lieberman (2013) who studies the neurological basis of social behavior and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) who studies the neurological basis of loneliness both agree that the human brain has largely evolved to meet the social demands of humans. Lieberman (2013) extends this to the notion of evolution, stating that if evolution had a purpose and a consciousness it made a bet on the social aspects of the human brain rather than the individual survival skills of the human brain to assure it continued survival. Indeed, both Lieberman (2013); and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008), provide significant evidence that the higher evolved areas of the brain are used in the processing of social information rather than non-social information. Lieberman (2013) even provides compelling evidence that when individuals stop engaging in non-social actions the brain immediately reverts to the activation of the social areas of the brain without conscious knowledge or effort. Based on this neurological evidence, it has lead these researchers to theorize that one of the most basic needs of human beings is to create and maintain social connections.

While Lieberman (2013) and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) developed a neurological basis for social belonging, Fiske (2013) develop a social cognitive needs model which places the need for belonging as an overarching motivation to four other cognitive and affective cognitive reasons for creating and maintaining social connections. In one’s motivation to belong Fiske (2013) theorizes that there are two relatively cognitive needs and motives, and two relatively affective needs and motives. The cognitive needs include the need for understanding and the need for control. The need to understanding is the need to have shared experiences that makes both the social and non-social world predictable. The second cognitive need is the need and motivation for control as defined as being able to have some control between behavior and the outcome of behavior. Again this can arise through shared meaning, storytelling, and knowing the experiences of others. Indeed, one can argue that while there are self-enhancements that drive this proposal and dissertation, the other social meaning is to provide a shared meaning of social identification and loneliness, and to provide a potential control between one’s behavior resulting from experience of loneliness and the potential positive outcomes through engaging in the social identification process. However, if the results of this proposal are not supported it also has shared understanding and control as well. Fiske (2013) also argued that there are two relatively affective needs and motives that are driven by the belonging process. The first is the need for self-enhancement, this is the basic need to be able to see one’s self as basically worthy and improvable. It can be argued that this can only occur within a social context either through direct social feedbacks or by comparing one’s self to some social norm. The second affective need is the need for trust which is defined by Fiske (2013) as seeing others as basically benign. Lieberman (2013) argued that the reason the human brain evolved in a large part to meet their social world is because it was an evolutionary advantage for human being to live in groups and work as a coherent unit. This social system also requires seeing individuals within that social system as relatively benign and safe. Therefore, Fiske (2013) felt this was an important aspect of one of the sub-categories of the need to belong, as she argues the more benign others are within a group, the more open and creative; and less closed and apprehensive.

Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) theorize that loneliness is a mechanism by which a person comes to understand that their need to belong or social connection is not being fulfilled. This will be discussed in the next section titled “Thwarted belonging leading to loneliness”. However, to summarize this section, the need to belong is considered a basic human need and can be explained by neurological evidence (Lieberman, 2013), and social cognitive evidence (Fiske, 2013). In the overall model presented in figure one the need for belonging would be evaluated in the appraisal of the situation for which the individual is attending. This appraisal can result in a thwarting of any five of Fiske’s cognitive needs leading to the negative emotional state of loneliness.

Thwarted belonging leading to loneliness.

As will be presented on the literature review on loneliness, the study of the topic has a long and rich history. What seems to be clear from this collection of data is that loneliness is a negative emotional state that motivates an individual to fulfill their needing for social connection and belonging (Ayalon, Shiovitz-Ezra, & Roziner, 2016). There are two types of loneliness that individuals experience best explained by Weiss (1973/1985) who theorized that individuals can experience two types of loneliness one emotional and the other social. Emotional loneliness is defined as a person’s subjective evaluation that they do not have sufficient emotionally close relationships. It can be argued under Fiske (2013) model that individuals need close emotional relationships to enhance their self-enhancement through honest feedback and encouragement. One could also argue emotional relationships are necessary to have a sufficient amount of trust, in a complex social world in which not everyone can be trusted.

The second form of loneliness described by Weiss (1973/1985) is social loneliness, also known in the literature as social isolation. Social loneliness is the appraisal that one does not have sufficient social connections. Not having sufficient social connections can thwart Fiske’s (2013) need for understanding and control, by not having sufficient information through social connection to make one’s world predictable and to have some sense of control. While the majority of Cacioppo’s work on loneliness has specifically dealt with social loneliness in relation to neurological process and health and mental health outcomes, he concedes that when social-emotional needs are not met this thwarts an individual’s confidence and abilities to create and develop meaningful social connections leading to the experience of chronic loneliness (Cacioppo, Christakis, & Fowler, 2009). The clear separation for emotional loneliness and social loneliness comes from evidence that individuals may still experience loneliness despite having several social connections, and when this has been investigated the main conclusion is that for these individuals while they may have a large social network, they lack any real meaningful emotionally close relationships (Grageset, Eide, Kirkevold, & Ramhoff, 2012). While as will be indicated later in this proposal loneliness can lead to some rather anti-social and self-defeating behaviors such as isolation (Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010), drinking (Chen, & Feeley, 2015), hypervigilance and inability to trust (Lodder, Scholte, Clemens, Engels, Goosens, & Verhagen, 2015), focusing on non-social objects (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008), and becoming more non-conforming, loneliness is largely seen as a negative emotional motivational model rather than a self-defeating model. Indeed, for the majority of individuals the experience of loneliness leads to increase social and emotional connections with others, satisfying and individuals need for belonging. As can be indicated in Figure 1, emotional and social loneliness are seen as outcomes of the evaluative process after a person has determined that they are not meeting their belonging needs. Loneliness is represented in the manner to emphasize that this emotional experience then leads to proceeding behaviors such as socialization or regaining emotional connections. Before moving on to the proposed mechanisms that may reduce loneliness (social identity) it is worth pausing for a moment and taking a look at the theoretical models of emotions, as loneliness is considered as an emotional state.

Emotional basis of loneliness.

Loneliness can be considered as fitting within two groups of emotions, the first is personal emotions where one has an individual experience of loneliness which aspects of this experience of loneliness are best explained by theories of emotions presented by Cacioppo and Gardner (1999). The second is loneliness can be experienced as a social and group emotion and be driven through social and group processes which is best explained by the group based emotion theory of Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016). A full evaluation of Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) theory is provided in the section on loneliness while a full evaluation of Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) is provided in the section on social identity. The purpose here is to provide the theoretical underpinnings of each of these theories as they relate to the experience of emotions.

To begin the exploration of emotions it should begin with some basic ideas of emotions presented by Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) who provide evidence that the majority of research on emotions indicates that it is a situationally bound experienced based on an appraisal process of what elements of a situation are being attended to and how they are appraised based on the individual’s identity and experience with the situation. The idea and notion of emotions being situationally bound and go through an appraisal processes emphasizes a short fall in both the research on emotions and the personal experiences of emotions, in that, according to Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), emotions are well understood as they are experienced. This may explain why at times individuals may try to alleviate emotions through more destructive means rather than in a manner consistent with what the emotion means to the individual. Lastly, Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), point out that in research, that compares group emotions versus personal emotions, has largely concluded that they are not experienced qualitatively different. Meaning that emotional states as experienced by the individual versus group emotions experienced by a group, do not differ in any significant way. This according to Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren, and Gross (2016) indicates that social identity and social evaluation should be taken into consideration in the evaluation of emotional states. Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) theory and ideas of emotions are explored more deeply starting on page 106 and represented on Figure 2 on page 109. For this section on building a theoretical framework Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) ideas can be represented in the situation, attention, and appraisal aspects of Figure 1, in that their theory supports the appraisal process of emotions based on the current situation.

The second theory of emotions used for the development of this theoretical framework come from Cacioppo and Gardner (1999). Like Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) theorized that emotions, while not always rationally based have cognitive evaluative processes by which a person may determine the meaning and purpose of a given emotional state. Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) theorized that emotions have both a safety and appetitive pathway or what they called channels. The safety channel are emotions that signal either the need to gain safety or that the organism is in a safe situation. In figure 1, this is represented through the appraisal of past emotional memories, which provides information on whether the situation is safe. The appetitive channel (also called hedonic needs by Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross, 2016) are needs that satisfy the basic needs of the organism but also the pleasure needs of the organism. In the context of loneliness and the belonging model of Fiske (2013), safety needs (fulfilled through trust, understanding, and control) when thwarted can lead to the negative emotional state of loneliness signaling to the organism that these basic needs are not being fulfilled. Appetitive needs under Fiske (2013) may include self-enhancement needs when not being satisfied may lead to the experience of loneliness. In addition to this emphasis on cognitive process, Cacioppo and Gardner (1999), also placed emphasis on socio-emotional development as an important understanding of not only how one will experience an emotion but understand and cope with it as well. The emphasis of socio-emotional development is represented as past emotional memories in Figure 1 to emphasize that individual’s experience with emotions and their already developed personal theories about emotions has significant implications of how one will evaluate the current situation and therefore the proceeding emotional state. One question that this proposal is trying to determine, is if emotional states – such as loneliness – are situationally bound, then there must at least theoretically, be a way to change situational variables that can lead to a changing evaluation of the situation and therefore the experience of the given emotion. This proposal theorizes that a potential situational variable is the saliency of one’s social identity. The next section will provide a theoretical overview of social identity theory.

Social identity theory and social categorization theory.

This research builds on the research conducted on Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Social Categorization Theory (SCT) research findings, which was originally formulated by Tajfel and Turner in 1982. According to SIT individuals seek groups which have similar attributes that they have. This leads to group affiliation and the development of a social identity based on the qualities of that group (Turner, 1982). Once individuals start to develop a social identity in order to protect that identity he or she will categorize individuals into either in-groups or out-groups as described by SCT (Abrams, 2014). Like one’s personal identity, individuals like to think of themselves as good people, in general, therefore they will implement protective mechanisms to enhance their social identity and have their social identity protected (Carter, 2013). Accordingly, most research on SIT has focused on how individuals protect their social identity through engaging in prejudice and discrimination towards out-groups (Kumar, Seay, & Karabenick, 2011). However, recent research has focused on the positive aspects of social identity, for example Haslam (2014) provided evidence that a sense of social identity among medical doctor residency students can enhance their educational experience through developing a sense of identity as a doctor. Haslam (2014) also argues that social identity is becoming such a key variable in individual’s social and personal experiences that both mental health and physical health practitioners should not deny the importance one’s social identity has and should work to enhance their social identity for the welfare of their clients and patients.

Specific to this research, the original assumption of SIT is that individuals seek out a social identity in order to enhance their self-esteem (Turner, 1982). However, research on this self-esteem hypothesis has been inconsistent and generally does not support this view (Abrams, 2014). This has lead Abrams (2014) to believe that there are probably multiple mechanisms which motivates an individual to engage in social identification. The argument of this proposal is the experience of loneliness maybe on motivating factor for one to engage in social identification. More importantly, is that social identity maybe a protective factor in reducing not only the evaluative phase of loneliness but also the experience of loneliness. This is represented in Figure 1, part of the evaluation process, and allows the individual to interpret the situation as one in which they belong both emotionally and socially. If this assumption is correct, it will indicate that social identity does indeed have a key role in an individual’s experience of loneliness. As will be shown in later sections in this chapter social identities provide the opportunity for social belonging and the development of emotional bonds based on similar attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. This emotional bond and the feeling of social belonging may provide relief of the emotional pains of loneliness. Additionally, the saliency of which can be placed in any situation in which maybe lonely evoking for individuals, subsequently reducing the chance that individual will experience loneliness. Emphasis on the saliency of one’s social identity is important, because research on social identity finds that unless one’s identity is made salient within the situation, it has little influence affective and behavioral outcomes (Carter, 2013). With this theoretical model in mind, focus will now turn to research that is relevant to understanding loneliness and social identity both from a historical standpoint and a contemporary view.

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The Relationship between Drugs and Alcohol Use and Suicidal Idealization and Attempts of Montanan Adolescence

Authors: April Kortz, Alex Holter, and Aundrea Edwards

Helena College University of Montana


Suicidal ideation and attempts start emerging in adolescents and can be increased by the use of illicit drugs and/or alcohol. Montana adolescents participate in a survey, YRBSS, every other year that helps monitor mental health status, drug use, alcohol use, and other items. The researchers used the YRBSS data from 1999 to 2013 to look for a link between alcohol use, drug use, suicidal ideation and attempts. The data showed that students who answered yes to feeling hopeless were more likely to have had used drugs or drank alcohol on school property within 30 days, these students were more likely to answer to having attempted suicide within the last 12 months. This research shows more research is needed to look at the relationship between suicidal ideation/attempts and drugs/alcohol in Montana youth.

The Relationship between Drug and Alcohol Use and Suicidal Idealization and Attempts of Montanan Adolescence

The transition from childhood into adulthood represents a phase of biological and psychological development otherwise known as adolescence. Suicidal ideations and other suicidal thoughts first emerge as a major public health problem during adolescence. Judge and Billick (2004), reviewed the available suicide data for the United States and found that, during 2001, 4,382 U.S. youths between the ages of 15 and 24 completed suicide. Adolescents are faced with new and unexpected developmental changes starting in the middle school years. The frequent discrepancies in this process render some adolescents particularly vulnerable to periods of marked psychological pain and distress (Pfeffer, 1997).

The relationship between suicidal ideation/attempts and substance use have started to become an increasing interest for researchers. Zhang and Wu (2014) looked at four waves of public-use Add Health data to look into the association. They looked into past-year drug use (including alcohol and other drugs) in relation to past-year suicidal ideation. After they received the data, Zhang and Wu (2014) created fixed effects models with lagged dependent variable to test for unidirectional associations between substance use and suicidal ideation. Non-recursive models with feedback loops were also conducted to examine reciprocal relations between suicidal ideation and each substance that could have been used. Once the information was adjusted for the time-invariant effects and lagged effects of dependent variables, the associations from substance use to suicidal ideation were consistently significant. The use of cigarettes or alcohol increased the risk of suicidal ideation, while suicidal ideation was not associated with cigarette or alcohol use. The same held true for other substances used (Zhang and Wu, 2014).

A particular high risk factor for suicide attempts among adolescents is within 12 months after being discharged from a treatment facility. Czyz and King (2015) completed a longitudinal study of adolescents with suicidal ideation and how hospitalization affected the chance of re-hospitalizations or suicidal attempts. The 376 participants, ranging in ages 13-17 and sex, were assessed at hospitalization as well as 3, 6, and 12 months after discharge. Trajectory groups, and predictors, were identified by Czyz and King (2015) by using latent class growth modeling. Logistic regression was used to examine associations between trajectory groups and their likelihood of suicide attempts and re-hospitalization. The research found that adolescents in the chronically elevated ideation group had a 2.29 and 4.15 greater odds of attempting suicide and 3.23 and 11.20 greater odds of re-hospitalization. Hopelessness was associated with persisting suicidal ideation (Czyz and King, 2015). Their results suggest that suicidal ideation severity at their original hospitalization may not be an adequate marker for subsequent crises.

Psychoactive substance use disorder (PSUD) has also been researched in its relation among suicidal adolescents who have been hospitalized. Mean et. al (2005) conducted a study on 186 adolescents monitoring for substance intoxication at the moment of the attempt and the association PSUD at baseline and either occurrence of suicide or repetition of suicide attempt(s). 148 participants were traced again after 6 or 18 months for evaluations. The research found that 39.2% of the subjects were found to have a PSUD. A significantly higher proportion was intoxicated at the time of their attempt than those without PSUD. During the course of tracing the 148 participants, it was found that two had completed suicide and 30 had repeated suicide attempts. Mean et al (2005) found that adolescents that are hospitalized for suicide attempt or ideation have a high risk of attempting suicide again as well as a higher risk of completion and is marginally associated with PSUD.

A group of chemically dependent adolescents, a group that is commonly at high risk of self-destructive behavior, were studied for suicidal ideation and attempts. Deykin and Buka (1994), interviewed 300 addicts and their families aged 15 through 19 years as well as assessed by the diagnostic interview schedule and a social history interview. Their research found that 31%-75% of the subjects reported suicidal ideation while 28%-61% reported attempting suicide, with females predominating. They found that the subjects had a higher risk of a suicide attempt when thoughts of suicide coincide with morbid ideation that has been existing for an extended duration. Substance abuse treatment requires an assessment of suicidal potential as well as counseling for those in the high risk category, paying special attention to male subjects who have been exposed to abuse.

The association between suicidal ideation/attempts and different types/number of substances are unclear. Wong, Zhou, Goebert and Hishinuma (2012) examined data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) from 2001 to 2009 which included 73,183 high school students. Their research examined the association between lifetime use of ten common substances of abuse (alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants, marijuana, methamphetamines, steroids and tobacco) and four different measures of suicidality they had over the past year (suicidal ideation, suicide plan, suicide attempt, and severe suicide attempt requiring medical attention). The logistic regression analyses of the data controlled for potential confounders in the data: socio-demographic variables, interpersonal violence, sexual intercourse and symptoms of depression and eating disorder. Wong, Zhou, Goebert, and Hishinuma’s (2012) results showed that adolescents that reported a history of heroin use had the strongest association with suicidal ideation, suicide planning, and suicide attempts including severe attempts. Each of the ten substances and the four measures of suicidality remained significant with multivariate analysis (p<0.05). Their research shows that there is a strong risk factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors among American high school students with substance abuse. The relationship between them increases with particular illicit drugs and higher number of substances.

The relationship between suicidal ideation and attempts to use of illegal substances among adolescents is one that has been researched using different methods. The YRBS survey provides some insight into adolescents that otherwise could be missed during regular interviews. Using YRBS data, this study will aim to provide information on Montana students, in High school age, and how suicidal ideation/attempts relate to substance use (i.e. drugs and alcohol).


The data for this study was reviewed to determine if there is relationship between drug and alcohol use and suicidal idealization or suicide attempts in Montana adolescence. High school students in Montana were surveyed during school hours. The students were administered surveys in which participation was completely voluntary. Their responses were recorded according to the students’ prevalence of a given behavior. This survey is the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System (YRBSS) and the data is evaluated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the data from the YRBSS the CDC is able to determine the prevalence of the behaviors among adolescents in Montana as well as in other states. The data collection that we obtained occurred on odd numbered years starting in 1999 and ending in 2007. The data studied included the whole state of Montana high school students. This study looked at the data that included adolescents who used drugs, specifically marijuana and cocaine, and/or alcohol in school in the last 30 days. This study also looked at students that struggled with emotional feelings that included feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months, or had thoughts of suicide and/or suicide attempts in the last 12 months.


After analyzing the data through SPSS, there was significant data for specific items that were investigated. First, a relationship was found between alcohol use in the last 30 days on school property and whether or not the respondents answered yes or no to the question of feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months. These results are shown by F (11, 19966) =28.632, p<.001, Ƞ²=.016. This indicates that the overall means for yes are significantly higher than the overall means of no (see Table 1). As Figure 1 indicates, the difference between answering yes or no to feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months cannot be explained by years because the issue of using alcohol in school in the last 30 days was there before 1999 and will be there after 2013. The data is significant, but it only explains .016 of the variance of the difference between the yes and no lines as explained by alcohol.

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Second, a relationship was also found between marijuana use in the last 30 days on school property and whether or not the respondents answered yes or no to the question of feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months. These results are shown by F (11, 19980) =23.176, p<.001, Ƞ²=.013. This indicates that the overall means for yes are significantly higher than the overall means of no (see Table 2). As Figure 2 indicates, the difference between answering yes or no to feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months cannot be explained by years because the issue of using marijuana in school in the last 30 days was there before 1999 and will be there after 2013. The data is significant, but it only explains .013 of the variance of the difference between the yes and no lines as explained by marijuana.

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The next relationship found, was between cocaine use in the last 30 days and whether or not the respondents answered yes or no to the question of feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months. These results are shown by F (9, 15208) =28.245, p<.001, Ƞ²=.016. This indicates that the overall means for yes are significantly higher than the overall means of no (see Table 3). As Figure 3 indicates, the difference between answering yes or no to feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks in the past 12 months cannot be explained by years because the issue of using cocaine in the last 30 days was there before 1999 and will be there after 2007. The data is significant, but it only explains .016 of the variance of the difference between the yes and no lines as explained by cocaine.

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After the suicidal ideations were compared to alcohol; marijuana; and cocaine, suicide attempts in the past 12 months where compared to the amount of alcohol consumed on school property in the last 30 days was analyzed. These results are shown by F (44, 24761) =109.949, p<.001, Ƞ²=.163. This indicates that the overall means for 5 or more times of attempting suicide as related with using alcohol in school in the last 30 days are significantly higher than the overall means of 4 or fewer times of attempting suicide as related with using alcohol in school in the last 30 days. As Figure 4 indicates, the difference between how many times a person attempted suicide in the past 12 months as related with using alcohol in school in the last 30 days cannot be explained by years because the issue was there before 1993 and will be there after 2013. The data is significant, but it only explains .163 of the variance of the difference between the amounts of times a person attempted suicide in the past 12 months as related with using alcohol in school in the last 30 days

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The last comparison that was evaluated was suicide attempts in the past 12 months as it related to the amount of marijuana smoked on school property in the last 30 days. These results are shown by F (44, 24784) =59.633, p<.001, Ƞ²=.096. This indicates that the overall means for 5 or more times of attempting suicide as related with using marijuana in school in the last 30 days are significantly higher than the overall means of 4 or fewer times of attempting suicide as related with using marijuana in school in the last 30 days. As Figure 5 indicates, the difference between how many times a person attempted suicide in the past 12 months as related with using marijuana in school in the last 30 days cannot be explained by years because the issue was there before 1993 and will be there after 2013. The data is significant, but it only explains .096 of the variance of the difference between the amounts of times a person attempted suicide in the past 12 months as related with using marijuana in school in the last 30 days.

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Adolescents have substantial volume changes in gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is made of neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, glial cells, synapses, and capillaries. While gray matter decreases during adolescence, white matter increases. White matter increasing is due to increased myelination of axons, thus allowing better communication between brain regions. Changes begin in the posterior portion of the brain and progress to the anterior regions. These neural changes occur well into the mid-to-late 20’s.

Alcohol affects GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid, inhibits neurotransmission which clams activity) receptors making them more inhibitory. Prevents glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter) from exiting the cell. Alcohol also affects the Prefrontal cortex which aids in decision making, memory, and impulse control. With how alcohol affects the brain function, when an adolescents drinks they are not able to make good decisions which can lead to attempting and or completing suicide, especially if paired with feeling hopeless and sad.

In marijuana, THC mimics anandamide (the brain’s own cannabinoid receptor) by binding to the cannabinoid receptors, which then allows dopamine to stay in the synapse. Marijuana slows down body movements, helping us feel relaxed and calm. Cocaine blocks dopamine transporters leaving them trapped in the synaptic cleft which overstimulates the cell. Cocaine also affects the area of the brain controlling voluntary movements. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among adolescents with marijuana being the second most used substance.

Montana is a state that targets Meth use, this research shows that cocaine use is higher on school property as well as marijuana use. This would be another area to research more to see if Methamphetamines are the drugs that should be targeted or if the focus should change, especially if cocaine is found to be more commonly used across the U.S.A on school property. It is also possible that cocaine may be more easily accessible to students compared to methamphetamines, which is another area that would be considered with further study.

This research has found that there is an association between alcohol consumption as well as drug use on school campuses and suicidal ideation and/or attempts. Risk seeking behavior could be related to conduct disorder or a way for students to reach out for help, more research would need to be done in this area to know for sure. Data is limited to every other year and the most recent year, 2015, is not available to view to see if the increase of drug and alcohol use is continuing. The questions asked in the YRBSS do not cover all the possibilities that could explain suicidal ideation and did not provide as much raw data. Further research should be done on Montana adolescents to help explain the increase of drug use on school property as well as its link to suicidal ideation and attempts.



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END NOTES: This paper was originally presented at the Fourth Annual Montana Student Research Forum for Two Year Colleges on April 8, 2016. Research was conducted at Helena College University of Montana with Institutional Review Board approval through the University of Montana. Supervising faculty for this paper were Dr. Nathan Munn (PI) and Professor Peterson (analysis).

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