loneliness

Responding to Criticism on my notion of loneliness

By: Curtis Peterson ©

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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.

 

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What is loneliness?


This article is dedicated to my mom (Becky) my daughter (Latasha), my son (Taylor) my niece (Katie) and my beautiful grandchild (Erin).


loneliness

In a previous blog, I compared the pain state of rejection with the negative motivational state of loneliness. In this blog, I will delve in deeper into the negative motivational state we call loneliness. Loneliness as a motivational state was first described by Psychiatrist Harry Sullivan in 1953, who stated that like many emotional states loneliness motivates us to fulfill one of our basic human drives which in this case is an affiliation and the socialization with others. This motivational need he believed first develops in infancy when the infant has complete depends on his or her caregiver. Like the pains of hunger, the pain of loneliness motivates us to seek out others who we can have a mutually beneficial relationship with. Indeed, current research supports this early development in loneliness, as we see loneliness in early childhood predicts poor socialization in middle childhood, and loneliness in middle childhood predicts depression and high-risk behaviors in adolescence. This is to say, just like eating habits – good or poor – in one period predicts continued poor eating habits in another unless there is some type of intervention.

In furthering our understanding of loneliness Sociologist Robert S. Weiss wrote a seminal book entitled “Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation”. In this book, Weiss argued that loneliness can come in two forms. The first form is created when an individuals feel socially isolated from others and subjectively experience less than desirable social interaction. The second type is subjectively lacking any significantly emotionally close relationships and attachments with someone else. Indeed, research since Weiss has indicated that there are two types of loneliness and the intensity of our experience depends on how these two are experienced (i.e. together or separate, loneliness following rejection, or meaning one places on close emotional relationships versus social connection). Additionally, we see the role of each of these based on the age of the individual. Research suggests that through adolescence into early adulthood having several social contacts and friends is important, because this allows someone to experience various types of individuals. These experiences and skills then allow an individual in middle to late adulthood to focus in on just a few emotionally meaningful social relationships. Therefore, it seems social loneliness has more impact on adolescents and young adults whereas emotional loneliness tends to have more of an impact on middle to late aged adults. In my model of social identity – currently being tested – I argue that social loneliness drives us to identify with individuals like us (our in-group social identity) and then through the assimilation and relationship building with those in our in-group we avoid  emotional loneliness, which in turn motivates us to maintain connections and enhance our social identity. Next, I want to pause before continuing our discussion on specifical loneliness to discuss the difference between loneliness and depression.

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Loneliness VS Depression

Many individuals who are experiencing bouts of depression often describe themselves as “lonely” and “isolated”. However, for our sake, I want to make a clear difference between the loneliness an individual says they are experiencing when depressed and the negative motivational state we have been discussing here. As stated earlier loneliness is a motivational state much like hunger and thirst, it drives us to seek out social relationships. Depression, on the other hand, drives us away from seeking social relationships through avoidance and the lack of desire to socialize with others. I make this distinction because people can at times mislabel depression as just being lonely. However, depression is a much more serious negative state. Therefore the reader is advised to always look at their motivational state when he or she feels lonely, and ask them self whether they feel the need to have a social connection or the need to isolate away from others. If the later it is advised to seek help, as this may be a more serious condition of depression.

Additionally, we should recognize the relationship between loneliness and later depression. In reviewing the depression literature over the past 15 years, there have been many predicting variables that increase the probability of someone experiencing depression. With the exception of social rejection or loss of a loved one, there in my experience has not been a stronger predictor variable than the experience of chronic loneliness. There is strong evidence that even early long past loneliness can predict later development of depression. For example, the chronic experience of loneliness in one’s thirties, predicts with strong confidence the development of depression in one’s fifties. Additionally, it should be stated here that the chronic experience of loneliness is also one of the strongest predictors of obesity, mortality, and morbidity. That is to say the less socially and emotionally connected we are with others leads to unhealthy lifestyles both physically and psychologically.

Loneliness across the lifespan

We have noted throughout this blog about how loneliness influences other states of well-being across the lifespan. The question that comes to mind is, when do we experience the most loneliness and why? First, we should say we do experience loneliness across the lifespan just like we experience any other motivational state. However, if we were to determine which groups experience the most loneliness it would be the elderly and individuals who are not well suited for living in rural locations.

Later adults are especially susceptible to loneliness, because as we age our social circles and social connections start to shrink and get smaller, as we disengage from work, social activities, and those who are older or of the same age start to pass away. This shrinkage of social circles along with the increased of loneliness and loss of identity has to lead a lot of scientists to believe that this is why we see a stark increase in suicide with men starting at around the age of 50, and has been an increasing concern for women. However, we should note that there are many older individuals who do not experience large amounts of loneliness and the question becomes who? Research is clear that older adults who live in social communities and maintain close friendships – and can develop new ones – are less likely to experience loneliness.

Ever think about leaving the hassle and busyness of the city life for the peacefulness of country living? – you may want to think again. Living in rural areas takes a certain adaptive mindset, that allows individuals to cherish the times they spend with others and accept that there are periods where one will be alone. This tends to be a native trait, that is a trait of someone who has always or mostly lived in rural locations. We find that when individuals leave larger populated areas for the quiet and peace of rural living they often run the risk of experiencing severe bouts of loneliness and can lead to heighten the risk of depression and suicidal behaviors. Indeed, individuals not raised in a rural area are at 4x risk of attempting suicide than native rural livers. For those coming from larger more populated areas where there is always the opportunity for social connection, moving to a place in which one has to work and plan to maintain social relationships, can be a lonely, stressful, and depressing endeavor. These combined experiences can lead an individual to experience the hell and chaos of depression and suicidal thoughts rather than the peace and quiet that they wanted to seek out by escaping from city life.

How does loneliness influence other psychological states?

I recently surveyed 60 college students on a measure of loneliness, happiness, quality of life, meaning in life, and social support. We found when statistical dividing individuals into low, moderate, and high loneliness, that individuals who were in the high lonely group had a significantly lower quality of life, meaning in life, and social support, included a thwarted sense of identity. The following figures and graphs illustrate these stark differences.

Why are these findings meaningful? These findings indicate that loneliness does not only influence our social well-being it also influences many other indicators of well-being. Which means that one experiences loneliness, it important not to continue the cycle of loneliness and to seek out meaningful social connections.

Eliminating loneliness through fulfilling the need of belonging.

Social Psychologist Susan Fiske in 2013 offered a model of social belonging that provides a roadmap for one to combat loneliness in his or her life. This social cognitive model is based on the premise that individuals are motivated by five social processes: The need to belong, the need for understanding, the need for control, self-enhancement, and the need to trust others. When all of these five needs are met they become a buffer to the experience of loneliness.

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The need to belonging according to Fiske is the need for strong and stable relationships and over arch the four other needs that can be divided into cognitive needs and affective needs. The two cognitive needs are the need for understanding and control. Understanding is the ability to maintain shared meaning that makes life more stable and predictable. When we engage in conversation with others we often engage in talking about things that are not only important to us but also to reinforce that our beliefs are stable and predictable through shared meaning with others. This is why it is a very lonely place for individuals who are on the fringe of most communities such as LGTBQ individuals, minority groups, the homeless, and many who suffer from mental illness. Because the majority of the community does not share these group’s qualities and challenges it is hard to create shared meaning and thereby making it harder to full fill the need for understanding. However, even within these fringe groups, when we find others that share our ideas, beliefs, and values our level of loneliness become reduced. The second cognitive need that Fiske mentions is the need for control. By her definition, control is knowing the perceived contingency between one’s behaviors today and some later outcome. As for example, showing up at work on time will reduce the chance of being fired. What controlling is all about really is understanding that, in a given situation, what behaviors will lead to the best outcome. To figure this out we often look towards our social network and those individuals around us. Being able to access individuals who can help us have control and predictability in our world is important and without this, it can lead us to feel lonely, isolated, and ineffective in what we do.

The last two needs Fiske talks about she refers to as affective needs, this means they are less thought driven and more emotionally driven. The first need is the need for self-enhancement. Self-enhancement is our basic need to feel worthy. In order to feel worthy this means we must engage others for feedback and support. The second effective need is the need for trust. For Fiske trust means seeing others as benign and harmless. This means feeling little threat by the company we keep, and to seek out individuals that help us feel safe and secure. It should be noted that trust in Fiske terms is an emotional evaluation, and unfortunately, in many social setting such as work, school, and public establishments the form of building trust comes in a cognitive form through rules, regulations, procedures, and policies. However, the best policy in the world does not matter unless an individual is effectively made to feel safe and that others are in essence benign. We do this not by reading policies and procedures but by asking others how they ‘feel’ about the situation. therefore, feeling safe trumps even the best written organizational or public policy or procedure. This may explain why cities who have tough on crime policies and militarize their police force actually feel less safe and there are increases and not decreases in criminal behavior because a militarized police officer is seen emotionally as a threat and not as a form of trust and protection. This, in turn, increases the propensity for individuals to enter into self-preservation behaviors.

Conclusion

This last section has offered four ways in which loneliness can be thwarted. By engaging in social situations that provide a sense of control and understanding and that establish trust and the ability of engaging in self-enhancement we are more likely not to experience loneliness and the negative consequences with continued a chronic loneliness. Most important is we need to find ways to engage each other on emotional and meaningful levels, which may mean setting down the smartphone at dinner or at coffee with friends. It means building communities of inclusiveness where everyone has the ability to engage in the community and opportunities. It means centering policies that protect the community by not creating threat through policy but understanding and trust. It means answering the phone, answering the text message even when we don’t feel like it. But probably most important it means when someone has experienced rejection, feels lonely, expresses sadness, that we actually pay attention, not tell them to ‘just get over it’, and give them the same treatment that we seek when we experience those same emotions. Finally hug someone, tell them you love them, tell them you think about them, and thank them for being a part of your life!!!

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Loneliness VS social rejection

rejection-main  – VERSUS –  Lonely-Woman

Understanding the fundamental difference between emotions of social rejection and the emotions associated with loneliness is vital in understanding the experiences of individuals. First lets start with a definition of loneliness, it is important from the outset to understand there are two different types of loneliness: social loneliness which is the perceived lack of social connection; and emotional loneliness which is the perceived lack of emotionally and cognitively close relationships. In later posts, we will delve into these further, for the moment lets look at how we define social rejection which is the negative state due to the withdraw of another individual (or group of individuals) in our life. Emotionally the feelings we have when we experience loneliness and social rejection can be very similar, however, they differ on their motivational purpose.

Loneliness while it may be seen as purely an negative affective state, is better characterized as a motivational state. When one is experiencing loneliness the negative emotional state motivates the individual to seek out missing social connections. This state is more associated with the motivational areas of the brain rather than the emotional pain  states of the brain. Rejection however, is directly associated with the pain centers of the brain. That is to say social rejection is more analogous to a physical injury, like a cut or broken leg, versus the negative motivational states of loneliness. So the question becomes, what should we do when we experience rejection? (further blogs will focus on loneliness)

Letting go of bad information

If you have ever been told “get over it, and move on” you will understand the title of this section very well. The problem with rejection is we have been “treating” it wrong all our lives, by treating it as an emotion rather than what it is – physical pain. Like physical pain, rejection needs to be cared for in an appropriate way (1) emergency care, (2) continued maintenance of the wound, and (3)  time to heal. In the following sections we will look at all three of these in detail.

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Emergency Care

Think back to the last time you hurt yourself physically – what did you do? – how did you respond? – what was your first action? If like me, it probably included, verbal cries of pain, coddling of the injured area, and search for an immediate pain reducing activity or agent. I think in many ways this maybe the basic responses of most individuals. First we need appreciate this process, because what are we doing when we are engaging in these behaviors, (1) we are verbal to alert others of our injury and draw attention to the possible hazard, (2) we try to reduce the immediate severe wound by assessing the wound and apply some method to reduce the pain that the injury is causing, and (3) we start the process of long-term healing by stopping any bleeding, splinting the broken bone, and stabilize the body to prevent any further damage.

How can this same process be applied to the pain of social rejection? First we need to recognize that social rejection is an internal injury that is caused immediate external environment – the rejector. Therefore diagnosis of this pain can be similar to being poisoned by a potent chemical. The first thing we do when we are poisoned (hopefully) is identify the poison, seek help, and attempt to purge the poison out of the body. The poison in this case is usually the rejector, however, sometimes it can also include what the rejector represents and not just who the person is. This can help us determine the severity of the poison, that is the more the person represents (intimate partner versus a stranger) will determine the potency of the poison, and the amount of injury care the person will need to engage in. Purging can occur in many forms include emotional, physical, and cognitive purging. But the immediate response should start with making sure the poison can no longer be ingested, this can take form of changing ones situation and removing traces of the rejector.

Purging can especially difficult because sometimes the poison was something we were attached to. for example looking at the intimacy literature, the beginning phases of an intimate relationship is very similar to addiction with the same brain regions in full operation during both processes. Therefore, being rejected by an intimate partner can be like being addicted to a drug, but that drug has become toxic for us, and despite our desire to continue using it, it has rejected us. Therefore, going with the analogy of a drug overdoes or the beginning phases of addiction recovery the first purging process is to go through the pains of withdrawal and purging the toxin out of our bodies. This should include feeling the pain of the rejection and understanding what the rejection object meant to the individual. By understanding the poison we can learn how to avoid it in the future, but we can tell the difference between future poisons and future healthy individuals. It only when we avoid the pain and understanding of rejection that it can lead us to relapse in the future with similar poisonous people. But just like withdrawing from drugs and the pains associated with drug withdraws needs to be done in a safe and controlled environment with supportive individuals. It is important to recognize that severe pain can lead us to further self-injury if not done in a healthy environment with healthy non-toxic individuals. If you have difficulty finding healthy individuals, your community can be a great resource, such as professionals such as counseling services, or online support system can help, and these individuals and groups can provide the healthy support to help recover from severe rejection.

The final phase of first aid is to start the process of long-term care, by dressing and cleaning the wound. This can start during the withdraw phase when one understand the pain associated with the poison, and can include protecting the individual from further injury by cleaning and dressing the wound. This can look like surrounding oneself with friends and family, changing the environment by getting rid of environmental triggers such as gifts and pictures (cleaning the wound and reducing continued infection). Finally, one must start a plan for further recovery.

The final note I want to make in this section is to remind the reader that social rejection is a physical injury, and research has shown that the same medicines that reduce physical pain can reduce the pain associated with social rejection. This also means, more dangerous substances such as alcohol and other drugs can also numb the pain. The reader should be careful of engaging in these vices to manage their pain. Taking prescribed doses of acetaminophen maybe a safer pain reducing alternative to alcohol or elicit drugs.

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Continued Maintenance of the Wound and Time to Heal

The main goal of the continued maintenance phase is the continued protection of the wound until it is fully healed. This means making sure no further injury occurs by not allowing further toxins into one’s life. This maybe the most risky point of recovery from rejection, because the more one feels better, the increased chance of engaging in the same habits and behaviors that resulted in the injury in the first place increases. When it comes to social rejection this can look like trying the engage the rejector back into one’s life or engaging individuals who are just if not more toxic than the original rejector.

During the maintenance phase, the analogy of a leg cast is good because the cast stabilizes the wound and protects it from further injury as it heals. This also means committing to a set of time to allow for healing, and surrounding one self with individuals, activities, and places that can act as the cast. Note that this is an active process just like a leg will not heal or will not heal correctly if it is ignored or one cuts the cast off too soon, the same goes with being rejected.

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Learning to Walk Again

I named this section learning to walk again to emphasize the final phase of recovery, which is to re-engage in the the social world from a healed perspective. Just like it takes time to walk normally after a broken leg it may take time to feel like one can engage in the social world the same after being rejected. However, there are some features of being recovered that we should discuss (1) just because the wound is healed, doesn’t mean the memory is still not painful, and (2) learning from experience.

Just because we know the causes and the situation in which caused rejection in our life, does not mean that the memory of the rejection will not hurt. This also includes good memories, if someone injures their leg skiing this does not mean they will have all bad memories of skiing. The same goes for social rejection, the problem is the combination of bad and good memories could lead us to engaging in risky behaviors that could lead us to being injured a second time. For addiction we call  this relapse, for broken leg we call this not learning our lesson the first time, either way it is during this phase that we can be at most risk of injury again. This is why learning from our experience and having reminders of the pain that it caused is important.

Literature on the difference between knowledge and actual behavior is very clear in that we can know better, but it doesn’t mean we will behave in a healthy way. I know for example a second helping of chocolate cake is not healthy, but sometimes given the opportunity my behavior will be different then my knowledge. This is a common mistake individuals experience when rejected is assuming they now know better, so they trust themselves not to engage in the same behaviors. Therefore, to truly heal from rejection we must engage in the hard work of training one’s self to engage in new behaviors and not assume we know better.Just like learning to walk after a serious leg injury this can take time and hard work. One needs to be committed to changing and assuring they do not get re-injured. This means engaging in new activities, learning different socialization skills (AND practicing them), finding new groups, and surrounding one’s self with healthy friends and family. Additionally, remember that this may not feel good and normal in the beginning, developing new habits consciously never does.

Before concluding this blog, I want to close with one last thing we need to know about social rejection. A person can remove all the knives in their kitchen, but this does not mean one will never cut their finger ever again. The same goes with rejection, we can go through the healing processes, and remove the current toxin in our life, but this does not mean we will never experience rejection ever again. Rejection like physical injury is part of life and is the amazing part of life that includes taking risks and sometimes receiving rewards and sometimes feeling pain and loss. But unless we take those chances and risks we never fully live as individuals and we live life with no meaning.

At this final point you may ask Curtis most of this article was on rejection and not loneliness as well. I wanted to start this article by differentiating the two because they are often mistaken for one another. Further blogs will focus solely on loneliness as we learn how to create a social connected and meaningful world for ourselves and the people we love.

 

 

 

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