An article, by Judith Shulevitz, in The New Republic looks at the very issue of loneliness from many views including evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, psychology and social sciences. Many people say they are lonely, especially the elderly and the middle-aged Boomers about to embark on retirement.
Although many theories have been put forward over the years as to what makes individuals lonely, the root of loneliness is essentially a lack of intimacy, a theory first suggested by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a well-known therapist. Shulevitz says about Fromm-Reichmann: “She figured that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.”
Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since Fromm-Reichmann laid it out. “Real loneliness,” as she called it, is not what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. Nor is “real loneliness” the happy solitude of the productive artist or the passing irritation of being cooped up with the flu while all your friends go off on some adventure. It’s not being dissatisfied with your companion of the moment—your friend or lover or even spouse— unless you chronically find yourself in that situation, in which case you may in fact be a lonely person. Fromm-Reichmann even distinguished “real loneliness” from mourning, since the well-adjusted eventually get over that, and from depression, which may be a symptom of loneliness but is rarely the cause. Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy.
Today’s psychologists accept Fromm-Reichmann’s inventory of all the things that loneliness isn’t and add a wrinkle she would surely have approved of. They insist that loneliness must be seen as an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition. Loneliness “is not synonymous with being alone, nor does being with others guarantee protection from feelings of loneliness,” writes John Cacioppo, the leading psychologist on the subject. Cacioppo privileges the emotion over the social fact because—remarkably—he’s sure that it’s the feeling that wreaks havoc on the body and brain. Not everyone agrees with him, of course. Another school of thought insists that loneliness is a failure of social networks. The lonely get sicker than the non-lonely, because they don’t have people to take care of them; they don’t have social support.Loneliness can increase the onset of many diseases and eventually kill, no matter what school of thought informs your opinion. That is why loneliness is now being considered more of a health matter than an individual social problem involving an inability to network. It’s more than that, Shulevitz writes:
If we now know that loneliness, a social emotion, can reach into our bodies and rearrange our cells and genes, what should we do about it? We should change the way we think about health. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize–winning economist at the University of Chicago who tabulates the costs of early childhood deprivation, speaks bitterly of “silos” in health policy, meaning that we see crime and low educational achievement as distinct from medical problems like obesity or heart disease. As far as he’s concerned, these are, in too many cases, symptoms of the same social disorder: the failure to help families raise their children.That is, government social programs can help raise better-adjusted children when poorer families can have access to such help; poorer individual are often isolated; facing the societal stigma of poverty. But help can change things, notably if it done early on.
Two examples show this to be true—the Perry Preschool project of the 1960s, and the Abecedarian Project of the ’70s, Heckman says. “Both have furnished ample evidence that, if you enroll very young children from poor families in programs that give both them and their parents an extra boost, then they grow up to be wealthier and healthier than their counterparts—less fat, less sick, better educated, and, for men, more likely to hold down a job,”Shelevitz writes. “In the case of the Perry Preschool, Heckman estimated that each dollar invested yielded $7 to $12 in savings over the span of decades. One of the most effective economic and social policies, he told me, would be ‘supplementing the parenting environment of disadvantaged young children.’ ”
You can read the rest of the article at [New Republic]