Why some people are predisposed to loneliness
It has been called the next big public health hazard, perhaps second only to current public enemy number one, sugar.
Too much of either has dire consequences for our health, except we consume one while the other can consume us.
Rates of loneliness in Australia and the world are rising and we tend to assume that it is circumstantial, the counterintuitive result of us becoming more disconnected from each other despite the fact that we are more connected than ever.
While environmental factors are important, previous research has found that about 50 per cent of loneliness is genetic.
Now, new research has explored why some people are more predisposed to it than others.
“For two people with the same number of close friends and family, one might see their social structure as adequate while the other doesn’t,” said the author of one new study, Abraham Palmer, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California.
“And that’s what we mean by ‘genetic predisposition to loneliness’ – we want to know why, genetically speaking, one person is more likely than another to feel lonely, even in the same situation.”
Loneliness, like physical pain, is a biological trigger that alerts us to danger. We are wired to feel the emotional pain of loneliness, experts believe, to motivate us to seek connection with others because our survival has always depended on social protection.
By examining the genetic and health data of more than 10,000 people and asking them questions about their feelings of isolation or being left out, Palmer and his team set out to understand who was feeling loneliness more than others and why.
After controlling for factors like whether or not participants were physically alone, they determined that genetic susceptibility for loneliness was associated with neuroticism and depressive symptoms. Their results, Palmer said, indicated some individuals may have inherent negative affectivity, that is a tendency towards feeling negative emotions.
Why, though? Separate research has suggested there is a positive mechanism behind some people’s susceptibility to loneliness.
John Cacioppo, the director of the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, believes that the power of loneliness propelled early humans to create communities to protect themselves.
Those with a greater predisposition to loneliness would have felt “so pained by disconnection that they are willing to defend their village,” Cacioppo told Quanta Magazine. “Others are willing to go out and explore but hopefully still have enough of a connection to come back and share what they found.”
Cacioppo’s theory that variability in genetic loneliness allowed for different social roles seems to be supported by a new study in which the ‘loneliness’ neurons in mice were stimulated.
The dominant mice had the most intense response to having the neurons stimulated, leading researchers to hypothesise that inherent loneliness drives certain mice to seek social status and fight to maintain that position in the group. The deep discomfort of feeling lonely provides social motivation. Other mice, without the genetic predisposition, seemed to be OK with being alone.
“Instead of focusing on the aversive state of being alone, this study looks at how social contact gets rewarded in the nervous system. Then loneliness becomes understandable as a lack of reward,” Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, told Quanta.
“I think the bigger picture is not to understand why loneliness is painful but rather how our brain is set up to move us out of that lonely state. Instead of thinking about loneliness, we could think about social affinity,” he said.
Certainly some of us may feel it more than others in general, and some of us at certain points in time and with more intensity, but social affinity, or connection, is what we’re all here for, reminds Brene Brown.
“Connection is why we’re here – it gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about.
“It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection – the ability to feel connected – neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired. It’s why we’re here.”
Liked this? Read these!
Got something to say? Get it off your chest here
The Juice Daily is a Fairfax Media owned website