Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Societal Costs Of Loneliness

The Human Condition

An article, by John Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo, in New Scientist says that loneliness has reached epidemic levels; there might be much truth in this statement. I too have observed and written that alienation might be the biggest human problem besetting western society. It informs many harmful actions and behaviours.

John Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo, both professors at University of Chicago, write:
The perception of isolation from others – of being on the social perimeter – is not only a cause of unhappiness, it also signals danger. Fish have evolved to swim to the middle of their group when predators approach, mice housed in social isolation show sleep disruptions and reduced slow-wave sleep and prairie voles isolated from their partners then placed in an open field explore their surroundings less and concentrate on predator evasion.

These behaviours reflect an increased emphasis on self-preservation when on the social perimeter. For instance, fish on the edge of a school are more likely to be attacked by predators because they are easier to isolate and prey upon. Such observations reflect a more general principle, that perceived social isolation in social animals activates neural, neuroendocrine and behavioural responses that promote short-term self-preservation. However, these responses bring a cost for long-term health and well-being.

The range of harmful neural and behavioural effects of perceived isolation documented in adults include increased anxiety, hostility and social withdrawal; fragmented sleep and daytime fatigue; increased vascular resistance and altered gene expression and immunity; decreased impulse control; increased negativity and depressive symptoms; and increased age-related cognitive decline and risk of dementia.
Part of any solution is to talk about about the problem; John Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo have now raised the issue. Societal alienation and the perception of loneliness is one of those problems that we are all aware of, but feel helpless to do anything about. There used to be a commercial on TV from a long-distance telephone company that that ran in the late Seventies and early Eighties that said, "Reach Out and Touch Someone" (AT&T; 1979) When individuals feel part of something and are connected to a community, they are less inclined to feel lonely and isolated. Communities, when all is said and done, are built on individual human relationships.

What about social media? Social media does connect people, but it does not substitute for immediacy and proximity, that is, it is not the same as close face-to-face human interactions. Social media is excellent at exchanging ideas and information, but it is not well-suited to sharing deep-felt emotions and feelings in the same way that close proximity does. Its limitations are becoming better known.

Building a sense of community might not solve all cases of loneliness, but it is worth discussing and doing.

For more of the article, go to [NewScientist]

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