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Loneliness isn't as bad as it sounds, study shows

POSTED: March 21, 2015 6:29 a.m.
JJ Feinauer/

The negative effects of loneliness are well documented. Excess feelings of loneliness have shown to shorten your lifespan and weaken your immune system. But there's another side to the story.

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Excess feelings of loneliness have been shown to shorten your lifespan and weaken your immune system. The health risks of loneliness even rival obesity, as Deseret News National's Lois Collins pointed out on Mar. 14.

But a new study published by the Association for Psychological Science puts a new spin on how we understand loneliness.

“The evolutionary approach to loneliness calls into question the dominant conceptualization of loneliness as an aversive condition without redeeming features,” the researchers argued. “Instead, loneliness is viewed as an aversive signal that indicates that important social connections are at risk or absent and acts as a motivational force to reconnect with others.”

In other words, feelings of loneliness are an important part of our survival instinct. Whereas other more primal survival instincts like hunger, fatigue or sexual attraction work to keep the body functioning properly and to assure reproduction, loneliness serves a much less tangible function, but one that is arguably just as important.

“Loneliness has played an important role in the evolution of the human species,” the researchers argued, because the heartbreak of solitude drives humans to interact.

Great things get done when we do them together, they argue, and without the sadness of solitude mankind might lack the incentive to deal with each other.

Psychologists have been arguing for years that stronger distinctions should be made between feelings of loneliness, isolation and “aloneness,” because not all are equally damaging.

For example, a paper published by the University College London argues that isolation, not loneliness per se, should be considered particularly dangerous.

Loneliness, in this perspective and in the argument of the APS study, is a yearning, a feeling that can compel one to make life changes and participate in productive activities. Isolation, on the other hand, is caused by a lack of contact with other individuals.

“People who spent very little time with friends and family, or at social events, were more likely to die regardless of income or health status,” according to NPR’s analysis of the UCL study.

The dangers of loneliness are manifest, according to the researchers, “when loneliness is sustained over time” and when those who feel lonely believe there is no way out.

But harnessing the power of those feelings in a constructive way is an important part of human social development. Loneliness is “not evolutionarily neutral but served to increase our survival as a species,” the study said.

These benefits of loneliness are different than, say, the argument that people accomplish more when they’re alone, or that some people just simply prefer to be alone. Or even that loneliness improves creativity.

Loneliness, in these terms, serves a more spiritual side of human nature. Feeling lonely is an evolutionary reminder that there are less tangible sides to our survival.
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