Social Belonging – Beyond a simple emotion

If we look at the majority of psychological research on social belonging we see that it often is reduced to a minor type of emotion that bring a happy feeling when it is there and a sad feeling when it is absent. But over the last few decades we have discovered that social belonging is so much more, in fact, it could be argued that social belonging is the most important part of being human. Much of our knowledge in last couple decades has come from neuroscience which has tried to unlock our knowledge of the social brain.

Studies of our most intimate belonging such as individuals who are romantically in love, have found that love and need to intimately belong are just not mere emotions that can be controlled and manipulated they are basic human drives. The areas of the brain that are active when we are with or reflecting about our intimate partner are the same areas that regulate breathing, hunger, heart rate, and thirst. Indeed the need for intimate connection is a basic biological drive. We find similar findings with other sources of social belonging as well. In fact we are such social being that when we are doing an activity with another person, and are aware of that person and they are aware of us, our brains start to synchronize and mimic each other. This can be seen observing individuals on a first date. If you are a social voyeur like me you may have already done this but if you have not I encourage you to give it a try.

At a restaurant or bar sit and watch people who are meeting each other for the first time. If they like each other their bodies will first orient to each other. If there is a potential for a relationship watch the way they eat and interact, you will see them start to “parrot” each other. Their cups, forks, plates, body positions, breathing, facial expressions all will start mirror each other. While this is not conscious to the individuals it is very apparent to the outside observer. If you are at a place where there is dancing, watch the individuals dance with each other. They will after a few missteps start to partner dance with each other as if they are seasoned experts. Their steps will be in sync their body movements will move gracefully as one moveable object. We can observe the same thing in less intense relationships such as when friends get together or when a group becomes committed to an action. This may seem very negative to bring up at this moment, but even mob behaviors follow these similar synchronize patterns.

Additional evidence of the importance of social belonging is how much of our brain we commit to our social world. Scientist have always felt that the frontal cortex – more specifically – the pre-frontal cortex is what gives rise to human’s intellectual and analytical qualities. Indeed, it is what allows us to do math or read or look at a complex problem and provide several potential solutions. However, upon closer evaluation, very little area of the pre-frontal cortex actually is dedicated to this type of problem solving. Indeed the majority of our pre-frontal cortex becomes active when we are thinking of our social world. In fact, Dr. Lieberman a renowned Social Neuroscientist has coined the social system as the default network system. Not only does this system becomes active when we thinking of social relationships, it becomes active when we are told to think of nothing at all or to stop some type of math problem. The means that even when we are not thinking about our social world, we are thinking about our social world.

Studies of psychopaths, which are individuals who use others as if they were non-human and often take horrible advantage of others has shown damage to the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex acts as a regulator for our social behavior. Many of us have had that moment where we want to slap or hit a person in the face. I would almost guess that every human being will have this experience at least once in their life time. The difference between most people and psychopaths is that it is our prefrontal cortex that provide us with the ability to decide “no I am not going to do that because of XYZ”. This pathway that inhibits this impulse tends to be absent in psychopaths. Again providing evidence of our social brain.

So here is our evidence from our brain, what about our behaviors. Well we can see that our need to belong is a drive from human isolation experiments. We find that when a person is given everything they need to biologically survive: food, water, and shelter. When they are denied human contact their body starts to die as if it was starving or dying from thirst. This unfortunately has lead us to one of our most effective types of punishment which is social isolation. In our not so distant past, being with others was a means of survival and being kicked out of a community was almost a guaranteed death sentence. Hence, when people “acted out” they were simply kicked out of the village. Because during this time it was believed that people acted evil, because they were possessed by demons, when kicked out of the village into the woods, this is where the myth of the haunted forest outside the village has its origins. These myths were also used to make sure no one left the village as well, a form of double edged social control sword.

Into modern times, our prison systems use isolation for behavior management. Unfortunately the missing part of this is whenever you “cage” a human being and isolate them from others, humans become aggressive and violent – does not matter if you are a criminal or a clergy – put someone in captivity and they will become the worse version of them. Hence in these conditions the only means of social control become the threat or use of more aggressive means such as weapons. Indeed it is interesting when we look at our prison system. We have spent centuries using the punishment method – understand this logic – punish someone, all sudden they will realize what they did wrong and never do it again. That like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to learn how to breath like humans do. Instead, we find that in some countries and a few in the United States that use social connection as a basis of their correction efforts they do not have the recidivism or over crowding that United States system have. Indeed countries with the lowest criminal recidivism rates are ones where the inmates are treated like humans and not caged animals.

If you think about the happiest moments in our lives they rarely happen when we are alone. They always involve someone else. Indeed if we think about the most happy events they tend to represent the height of human connection. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, a work promotion, buying a house, etc etc all are intensely social events. Some the saddest moments in our lives tend to be when we have the threat of losing someone or the actual loss of someone. Even couples who have amicable divorces experience loneliness and sadness. The loss of a job is a loss of identity and social connection. The loss of a loved one. In our modern time forgetting one’s smartphone at home when going to work can bring some people so much pain they rather risk being fired at work, and go back home to get their phone. The smartphone is a social device, indeed it is our social outsourcing partner. It allows us to connect at a distance, it makes sure we don’t forget our social obligations. These outsourcing devises have become so integral in our need for social connection and belonging, we have had to ban them when our cognitive and thinking resources should be else where such as when we are driving. Bottom line everything that brings us pleasure and pain our social in nature. When that pain becomes too much we will try to seek out non-social means to alleviates them such as using drugs, hoarding behaviors, become obsessed with non-human objects, become materialistic, and in some cases act out towards the social order.

Beyond biology and behavior there are also psychological and emotional aspects of belonging. Susan Fiske identified four psychological motives for belonging: understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trusting. Understanding and control are relatively cognitive and rational processes and within our self-concept model would be evaluated through self-awareness. Self-enhancement and trusting are relatively emotionally/affective based and are more susceptible to irrational thinking and are evaluated more by the self-esteem processes in the self-concept model.

Understanding is our need to have a shared experience and make a situation predictable. Controlling is our need to feel we understand why something happened and what the outcome would should be. When I explained this to my students, I often use the example of asking the students what they would do if I jumped on a table and started to crazy dance. Then I ask the students what would they do? The usual answer is “think you are crazy and just lost it”. Then I explained, what you most likely to do is within the first six seconds you would look to the right then look to the left, and pay attention to other’s reaction. Why? because what they are looking for is (1) am I experiencing the same thing everyone else is (understanding), and (2) what should our reaction be (controlling).

The two more emotional/affective based needs for belonging are self-enhancement and trusting. I am going to start with trusting, because this is not the “normal” type of trust we usually associate with this word. The “normal” trust is when we have a reciprocal relationship with someone and we have this feeling that if we get stuck they be there to help. This type of trust is usually developed in infancy. When baby cries, mom comes and feeds baby, baby is satisfied smiles, mom smiles back, and they have that reciprocal positive emotion assuring next time the baby cries mom will return. While this is a important type of trust and necessary for the development of healthy relationships, the type of trust we are talking about here is the need to see other a benign and non-threatening. In any social situation either consciously or unconsciously the first thing we do is scan the room for threats. Once we determine where is safe and where is threatening, this is when we determine where we will sit and who we will sit with. This is this type of trust. As I said though this is not always rationally based. For example I am not a biker and my only exposure to bikers is what I have seen on T.V. and so walking into a biker bar would be very threatening to me and I probably leave promptly.

In that same vein there are people who find individuals who commit crimes as more safe than individuals who do not commit crimes. This is not rationally based either, and can be seen by looking at research on adopting children out of the foster care system when the child is older than ten years old. If you talk to these children who want to be adopted many report wanting the safe and loving environment normally associated with happy and healthy children and families. Yet when put in that environment greater than 90% will return to their family of origins when they turn 18. Most reporting they did so because they felt more comfortable and safe, even though it is actually can be more dangerous and risky.

Self-enhancement is the need to see one’s self worthy and improvable. But the only reliable source on this is our social world and the feedback it provides. While this may seem simple it is not, as I stated this can be lead a stray as well and trusting. For example a child who is labeled as bad and is constantly told they are a bad child on a rational level you would think that under self-enhancement their motivation would be to become a “good child”, so bringing their behaviors to light should motivate the child not to engage in those behaviors. If you thought that I would encourage you to read the sections on identity again. Who we are like and who best fits our behaviors is the identity we take on in our personal and social world. Therefore the positive motivation for a “bad child” is not to become a “good child” no rather it is to become the baddest and worst child they can be. This allows them to have congruency between their behavior and what people tell them they are in this world. And I hope from our discussion on incarceration you cannot punish someone into being good. Again what makes these difference in evaluation: the social situation a person is raised in and is currently experiencing. What happens when we do not meet our belonging needs? This is where we are heading – into the world of loneliness.

loneliness, Uncategorized

How Social Identity Influences Social and Emotional Loneliness

Dissertation Results on: “How Social Identity Influences Social and Emotional Loneliness”.
In my research, I tested whether or not individuals will evaluate their level of loneliness when thinking about their identity as tied to a group (in this case being a college student) versus thinking about one’s personal qualities, or two other control conditions. I found that when individuals are asked to write five qualities of being a college student their level loneliness is significantly less than the other control conditions and almost half as lonely when compared to writing down five personal qualities.
Why does this matter?
Recently, several experts in the field of psychology and medicine are calling loneliness a modern public health problem that is occurring on a scale that has not been seen since loneliness started being measured in the 1920s. Along with the associated negative outcomes such as mortality rates, increase the risk of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, obesity, diabetes, and of course increased the risk of mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thought. Indeed in my research 53% of participants stated “more or less”, “yes”, or “absolutely yes” to the following statement “I experience a general sense of emptiness”. However, very little research, outside the clinical setting, has looked at how to reduce loneliness within the immediate situational context. This research was one of the first to look at the immediate situational variable (thinking of social identity) to see if the situation can influence one’s level of loneliness. Indeed, this research suggested that by focusing on qualities of a social nature decreases a person’s evaluation of emotional loneliness (the evaluation of not having enough significant emotional connections with others) and social loneliness (the evaluation of not have a sufficient number of social connections).
Another aspect of this research is that it supports the theoretical assumption that emotions are more dependent on the situation the person is in, rather than emotions being something that is transient and is independent of the situation. The last important aspect of this research, which is discipline specific, is that it is the first to experimentally test the relations between a group process and emotional state such as loneliness, to see if group process influences one’s emotional outcome, effectively bridging two fields within psychology – the study of intra/intergroup processes and emotions experimentally. However, because this is novel research and first to experimentally test these variables together, further research and replication are needed, to see if these findings hold to the scrutiny of the scientific process.
For anyone who is interested I have provided a link to the abstract and downloadable copy of the full dissertation: https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/dissertations/5772/

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:


Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., & Thisted, R.A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago health, aging, and social relations study. Psychology and Aging, 25(2), 453-463

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Lamberton, L.H., & Misor, L. (2010). Human Relations (4th ed). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill

Lieberman, M.D. (2013). Social: How our brains are wired to connect. New York, NY: Broadway Books

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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.

The Historical Research Development on Loneliness


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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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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.