loneliness conundrum more connected yet less connection

I read last week about the UK recently appointing a ‘Minister for Loneliness’ – Tracey Crouch for those interested.

Truthfully, I’m not sure how I feel about it.  I’m pleased that there is an awareness that social isolation is a growing problem – not just in the UK.  There is also research from the USA and Australia, too, that supports this growing reality.   I’m sad that this increasing issue is a reality of our modern life.

I acknowledge that this is a large topic, and I’m not attempting to cover it all. I further acknowledge that there is a continuum where some people are more ‘sociable’ than others; and that there is a difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘being alone’. ‘Loneliness’ is considered as the isolation that comes with an expectation that’s unmet, while ‘being alone’ is about finding a sense of freedom in the isolation.  They are pillars that support the same emotion.  Given these acknowledgments, this is likely the first in a series of papers which explore this topic.

The UK has a population of 66 million people – and it now has a Minister of Loneliness to focus attention on what is being described as an ‘epidemic’ with 9 million (13.6%) people experiencing chronic loneliness.

The USA has a population of 324 million people – and it, too, recognises that loneliness is also a growing challenge with Harvard University researchers estimating that 1 in 5 people suffer from chronic loneliness.

Australia has a population of 24 million –  Lifeline recently released the results from a ‘Loneliness Survey’ in mid-January.  According to those findings (albeit from a relatively small sample size), 60% of Australians often feel lonely, and that figure is rising.  Similarly, Relationships Australia conducted an online survey in January 2017 and reported findings that:

  • Women are more likely than men to report higher levels of social support
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 3 men report that they did not have someone to help them out if in need
  • Between 2001 and 2009, 3 out of 10 Australians experienced loneliness

‘Loneliness can kill.  It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.’ says Mark Robinson, CEO of Age UK Barnet a non-profit organisation in the UK.

‘Loneliness is contagious, heritable, affects one in four people – and increases the chances of early death by 20%’, John Cacioppo, US Social Neuroscientist, University of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

I wasn’t surprised to read that.  We are social.  Our brains are social.  People need to interact with people.  We feel safer in a group and it also means from an evolutionary perspective, that we have a better chance of survival.

Loneliness impacts the brain.  Social isolation is painful. It comes in different forms, and, to add to the complexity, is subjective.

  • The elderly – may not be mobile or have access to/desire to connect using technology. May not have strong family ties and may have friendship groups who are now deceased
  • Youth – hyper-connected via technology with wide ‘acquaintance’ groups, yet don’t have many physical connections.
  • The well-off – may have lots of connections, but feel that many are motivated by material gain. So still experiences loneliness
  • In the US – soldiers who have returned home, considered to be one of the most chronically lonely groups.

In the work environment, loneliness can be experienced as:

  • CEOs who once promoted to the role are not included in the wider senior executive team like they would be if a peer
  • Executive women, particularly if they are the ‘lone’ female in an executive team
  • Generational loneliness with immediate colleagues – working with, or in a team, where there is a large age gap

A further conundrum that can compound loneliness is the threat response of the brain that lead to a more self-preservation oriented perspective.  Those people who may be connections are viewed through a ‘fear’ lens – less open, trusting and sharing.  If we consider loneliness through a brain savvy lens, there are two interesting pieces of research.

Matthews, Nieh and collaborators considered loneliness from a more ‘threat’ oriented – acute isolation – perspective.  Their research found that in response to acute social isolation a dopamine response in the dorsal raphe nucleus triggered a motivation to search for re-engagement and social interaction.

Sargin and collaborators considered loneliness from a more ‘reward’ oriented perspective. They hypothesised that similar to consumption of food because it is either ‘yummy’ or ‘we are hungry’.   We may activate the brain differently depending on whether the social interaction is rewarding (yummy) or because we are lonely (hungry).   This research asserted serotonin responses in the dorsal raphe nucleus also drove motivation to search for re-engagement, albeit with a different motivator.

Loneliness is a feeling – it’s the brain/body’s way of identifying that something requires attention. When it helps us overcome a situation that may put us at risk or disadvantage, or highlights the need for social connections, it’s productive.  When it triggers anxiety, stress or depression, it’s moving to threat end of the continuum.

So, while we may live in a highly connected technological world that offers more options for connectivity – from a technology standpoint – it would seem that this doesn’t translate to more social connection.  Indeed, the research is indicating it’s less. Indeed, the brain activity activated when using technology is not the same as the brain activity activated when physical interactions happen.

I’d be interested in the thoughts and questions that arise from your reading of this article.  This will help to identify areas for further attention and possible research.

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