Loneliness (I)

I’m currently reading this book by John Cacioppo and William Patrick. It’s a bit too soft/popular science-y for my taste, but the material is interesting.

Below some observations from the book’s part one:

“Serving as a prompt to restore social bonds, loneliness increases the sensitivity of our receptors for social signals. At the same time, because of the deeply rooted fear it represents, loneliness disrupts the way those signals are processed, diminishing the accuracy of the message that actually gets through. When we are persistently lonely, this dual influence — higher sensitivity, less accuracy — can leave us misconstruing social signals that others do not even detect, or if they detect, interpret quite differently.

Reading and interpreting social cues is for any of us, at any time, a demanding and cognitively complex activity, which is why our minds embrace any shortcut that simplifies the job. […] We [all] invariably take cognitive shortcuts, but when we are lonely, the social expectations and snap judgments we create are generally pessimistic. We then use them to construct a bulwark against the negative evaluations and ultimate rejection that the fearful nature of loneliness encourages us to anticipate.”

“When we feel socially connected […] we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failure to bad luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes—at least in our own minds. Meanwhile, we use the same everyday cognitive shortcuts to try to barricade ourselves against criticism and responsibility for our screw-ups. The net result is that, over time, if we get stuck in loneliness, this complex pattern of behavior can contribute to our isolation from other people. […] What makes loneliness especially insidious is that it contains this Catch-22: Real relief from loneliness requires the cooperation of at least one other person, and yet the more chronic our loneliness becomes, the less equipped we may be to entice such cooperation. Other negative states, such as hunger and pain, that motivate us to make changes to modify unpleasant or aversive conditions can be dealt with by simple, individual action. When you feel hungry, you eat. […] But when the unpleasant state is loneliness, the best way to get relief is to form a connection with someone else. Each of the individuals involved must be willing to connect, must be free to do so, and must agree to more or less the same timetable. Frustration with the difficulty imposed by these terms can trigger hostility, depression, despair, impaired skills in social perception, as well as a sense of diminished personal control. This is when failures of self-regulation, combined with the desire to mask pain with whatever pleasure is readily available, can lead to unwise sexual encounters, too much to drink, or a sticky spoon in the bottom of an empty quart of ice cream. Once this negative feedback loop starts rumbling through our lives, others may start to view us less favorably because of our self-protective, sometimes distant, sometimes caustic behavior. This, in turn, merely reinforces our pessimistic social expectations. Now others really are beginning to treat us badly, which seems like adding insult to injury, which spins the cycle of defensive behavior and negative social results even further downhill.”

“In 2002 our team at the University of Chicago began collecting longitudinal data on a representative sample of middle-aged and older citizens in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. We subjected these volunteers to numerous physiological and psychological measurements, including the UCLA Loneliness Scale. […] When we analyzed the diets of these older adults, what they ate week after week, month after month in real life [we found that] older adults who felt lonely in their daily lives had a substantially higher intake of fatty foods. […] we found that the calories of fat they consumed increased by 2.56 percent for each standard deviation increase in loneliness as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale.12

I must admit I found this finding in particular quite interesting, and surprising:

“In another study, researchers asked participants either to describe a personal problem to an assigned partner, or to adopt the role of listener while the partner described his or her problem.17 Lonely individuals, when specifically requested to take the helping role, were just as socially skilled as the others. They were active listeners, they offered assistance to their partners, and they stayed with the conversation longer than those who were describing their troubles. So we retain the ability to be socially adept when we feel lonely. […] [However] [d]espite their display of skill in the experiment, the lonely participants consistently rated themselves as being less socially adept than other people.”

“factor analysis tells us that loneliness and depression are, in fact, two distinct dimensions of experience.10 […] Loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships. Depression reflects how you feel, period. Although both are aversive, uncomfortable states, loneliness and depression are in many ways opposites. Loneliness, like hunger, is a warning to do something to alter an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous condition. Depression makes us apathetic. Whereas loneliness urges us to move forward, depression holds us back. But where depression and loneliness converge is in a diminished sense of personal control, which leads to passive coping. This induced passivity is one of the reasons that, despite the pain and urgency that loneliness imposes, it does not always lead to effective action. Loss of executive control leads to lack of persistence, and frustration leads to what the psychologist Martin Seligman has termed “learned helplessness.””

“For our cross-sectional analysis, we went back to the large population of Ohio State students that had supplied volunteers for our dichotic listening test. We refined our sample down to 135 participants, 44 of them high in loneliness, 46 average, and 45 low in loneliness, with each subset equally divided between men and women.16 […] this study population gave us a clear picture of the full psychological drama accompanying loneliness as it occurs in the day-to-day lives of a great many people observed during a specific period of time. The cluster of characteristics we found were the ones we had anticipated: depressed affect, shyness, low self-esteem, anxiety, hostility, pessimism, low agreeableness, neuroticism, introversion, and fear of negative evaluation. […] Analysis of the longitudinal data from our middle-aged and older adults showed that a person’s degree of loneliness in the first year of the study predicted changes in that person’s depressive symptoms during the next two years.21 The lonelier that people were at the beginning, the more depressive affect they experienced in the following years, even after we statistically controlled for their depressive feelings in the first year. We also found that a person’s level of depressive symptoms in the first year of the study predicted changes in that person’s loneliness during the next two years. Those who felt depressed withdrew from others and became lonelier over time.”

“In 1988 an article in Science reviewed [research on loneliness], and that meta-analysis indicated that social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.4 For some time the most common explanation for this sizeable effect has been the “social control hypothesis.” This theory holds that, in the absence of a spouse or close friends who might provide material help or a more positive influence, individuals may have a greater tendency to gain weight, to drink too much, or to skip exercise. […] But epidemiological research done on the heels of the analysis published in Science determined that the health effect associated with isolation was statistically too large and too dramatic to be attributed entirely to differences in behavior.”

However behaviour does matter:

“we found that the health-related behaviors of lonely young people were no worse than those of socially embedded young people. In terms of alcohol consumption, their behavior was, in fact, more restrained and healthful. […] our study of older adults did [however] indicate that, by middle age, time had taken its toll, and the health habits of the lonely had indeed become worse than those of socially embedded people of similar age and circumstances.21 Although lonely young adults were no different from others in their exercise habits, measured either by frequency of activity or by total hours per week, the picture changed with our middle-aged and older population. Socially contented older adults were thirty-seven percent more likely than lonely older adults to have engaged in some type of vigorous physical activity in the previous two weeks. On average they exercised ten minutes more per day than their lonelier counterparts.”

“It may be that the decline in healthful behavior in the lonely can be partially explained by the impairment in executive function, and therefore in self-regulation, that we saw in individuals induced to feel socially rejected. Doing what is good for you, rather than what merely feels good in the moment, requires disciplined self-regulation. Going for a run might feel good when you’re finished, but for most of us, getting out the door in the first place requires an act of willpower. The executive control required for such discipline is compromised by loneliness, and loneliness also tends to lower self-esteem. If you perceive that others see you as worthless, you are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and less likely to take good care of yourself.

Moreover, for lonely older adults, it appears that emotional distress about loneliness, combined with a decline in executive function, leads to attempts to manage mood by smoking, drinking, eating too much, or acting out sexually. Exercise would be a far better way to try to achieve a lift in mood, but disciplined exercise, again, requires executive control. Getting down to the gym or the yoga class three times a week also is much easier if you have friends you enjoy seeing there who reinforce your attempts to stay in shape.”

“Our surveys with the undergraduates at Ohio State showed that lonely and non-lonely young adults did not differ in their exposure to major life stressors, or in the number of major changes they had endured in the previous twelve months. […] However, among the older adults we studied, we found that those who were lonelier also reported larger numbers of objective stressors as being “current” in their lives. It appears that, over time, the “self-protective” behavior associated with loneliness leads to greater marital strife, more run-ins with neighbors, and more social problems overall. […] Even setting aside the larger number of objective stressors in their lives, the lonely express greater feelings of helplessness and threat. In our studies, the lonely, both young and old, perceived the hassles and stresses of everyday life to be more severe than did their non-lonely counterparts, even though the objective stressors they encountered were essentially the same. Compounding the problem, the lonely found the small social uplifts of everyday life to be less intense and less gratifying. […] when people feel lonely, they are far less likely to see any given stressor as an invigorating challenge. Instead of responding with realistic optimism and active engagement, they tend to respond with pessimism and avoidance. They are more likely to cope passively, which means enduring without attempting to change the situation.”

“We found loneliness to be associated with higher traces of the stress hormone epinephrine in the morning urine of older adults.30 Other studies have shown that the allostatic load of feeling lonely also affects the body’s immune and cardiovascular function. Years ago, a classic test with medical students showed that the stress of exams could have a dramatic dampening effect on the immune response, leaving the students more vulnerable to infections. Further studies showed that lonely students were far more adversely affected than those who felt socially contented.”

“One clearly demonstrable consequence of social alienation and isolation for physiological resilience and recovery occurs in the context of the quintessential restorative behavior — sleep. […] when we asked participants to wear a device called the “nightcap” to record changes in the depth and quality of their sleep, we found that total sleep time did not differ across the groups. However, lonely young adults reported taking longer to fall sleep and also feeling greater daytime fatigue.39 Our studies of older adults yielded similar findings, and longitudinal analyses confirmed that it was loneliness specifically that was associated with changes in daytime fatigue. Even though the lonely got the same quantity of sleep as the nonlonely, their quality of sleep was greatly diminished.40″

August 18, 2015 - Posted by | books, Psychology

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