Are you Lonesome Tonight?

It’s official. We’re getting lonelier and it’s baffling to all. Social media and instant messaging ensures that we are always in touch with the world, so why has the number of people experiencing loneliness increased?

The essence of loneliness

UCSF professor Carla Perissinotto has a succinct definition for it. She says, “Loneliness is “the discrepancy between one’s desired relationships and one’s actual relationships.” In other words, the level of loneliness a person feels has nothing to do with the quantity of social connections that a person has but the quality of them. So it doesn’t really matter if you have a lot of friends and acquaintances, if you feel like you are not central to their existence or if they have friends that they are closer to than you, you are going to feel lonely.

There is a self-test that asks just three questions, which sociologist Mary Elizabeth Hughes of Duke University says is all you need to find out if you are lonely.

How often do you feel that you lack companionship — hardly ever, some of the time, or often?

How often do you feel left out — hardly ever, some of the time, or often?

How often do you feel isolated from others — hardly ever, some of the time, or often?

While everyone suffers from loneliness at some point, studies have shown that teenagers and old folks are most prone to it. Between 50 to 80 per cent of adolescents and 40 to 50 per cent of the elderly population report feeling lonely.

It is easy to understand why the elderly would feel lonely. They are not able to move around easily and are often alone but why would teenagers suffer from loneliness? They seem forever connected to their friends. Research shows that increased use of social media is causing a rise in the level of loneliness in teenagers while it has the opposite effect on the elderly. Social media helps aged folks to keep in touch with their near and dear ones and helps keep loneliness at bay. The difference is that the elderly have already learnt to maintain friendships in real life and use social media to augment their relationships. With teenagers, social media has the opposite effect. Social media prevents teenagers from learning how to maintain relations in real life and gives them a false sense of being surrounded by friends. When they see their friends having a good time with other people on social media, it creates envy and anxiety that can lead to loneliness.

So is loneliness for real or is it a state of mind?

While we all feel lonely at some point of time, it usually passes when we reconnect with people and make new friends, but there is a different kind of loneliness that seems to last forever and is felt even when the person is surrounded by people. Many heart-wrenching songs have been written about people with lonely souls but it is not as romantic in real life as it sounds in the lyrics.

Scientists have now identified people who have a tendency to feel lonely all the time. John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and TEDx speaker, has identified the lonely brain and the non-lonely brain. If you answered “Often” to all 3 of the above self-test questions, there is a good chance you have a lonely brain.

He conducted an experiment where volunteers were shown negative images like two men arguing and their brains were monitored with an MRI scanner. “The lonelier the brain,” Cacioppo said at a TEDx talk last year, “the more visual cortical activity is devoted to that negative social image.” Lonely people also showed less activation of the temporal parietal junction, when looking at negative social images. This is the brain region involved in understanding another person’s point of view. The lonely subjects were more disorganized, had less sleep and had a tendency to get into depressive thinking and mental health problems. Lonely brain people have less control on their emotions and more likely to see themselves as victims. They therefore had more problems interacting with people and consequently became lonelier.

Loneliness is a great leveler. It is not restricted to any particular category of people. Neither wealth, fame, good looks, academic achievement nor popularity seems to offer any escape from it. This explains why we hear about many celebrities and other successful people resorting to drug and alcohol abuse or committing suicide, much to our confusion. Even marriage is not adequate protection against loneliness. Out of the 700 Americans over age 60 who described themselves as lonely, 62.5 percent were married.

They say misery loves company and this couldn’t be truer than for people who feel lonely. Lonely people tend to feel lonelier when they are in the company of other lonely people. Yes! Loneliness is incredibly contagious. If you’re lonely, you convey loneliness to others. You cut yourself off from others and then they cut themselves off from you. That other person has now been infected in the same way and transmits this behavior to others creating a cycle of loneliness.

If you think you suffer from chronic loneliness, then simply trying to get out of the house or out of the routine you’ve created for yourselves or meeting people might not solve your problem. People who feel lonely all the time have an internal dialogue going on in their heads that keeps telling them that they are lonely. It’s important to realize, loneliness doesn’t just happen to you, it’s something you are doing to yourself.

Researchers recommend reducing social isolation and encourages such people to get out and make new friends or indulge in different activities. For more severe cases relating to people with poor social skills, they recommend counselling to change their view of themselves and their world. Getting rid of that lonely feeling can be hard, but not impossible and simply being aware that it’s the negative stories that you’re telling yourself that is causing loneliness is the first step towards recovery.

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