Marriage and Family — 30 January 2012
How to extricate yourself from real or perceived loneliness

Feeling lonely is uncomfortable and even frightening. It is a universal emotion meant to propel us to seek social interaction and connection with others to secure our safety and underscore our worthiness.

There is a distinct difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone is a volitional, temporary or long-term state that may be either uncomfortable or cherished. Though all people need connection with others, at times, solitude may be refreshing, soothing and invigorating. Feeling lonely does not engender positive affect. It is commonly associated with abandonment, disempowerment, fear and questioned desirability.

Professor John Cacioppo and colleagues of the University of Chicago studied the ways in which real or perceived social isolation (loneliness) affects social cognition and emotions. He confirmed that humans have the longest period of dependency of any other species, and that “the average person spends about 80% of waking hours in the company of others, and the time with others is preferred to the time spent alone.”

Cacioppo’s research also reveals that people do not fair well alone “whether they are living solitary lives, or whether they simply perceive they live in isolation.”  He also found that “Individuals who perceive themselves to be socially isolated are more negative and hostile in social interactions than their counterparts,” and that this belief is a “predictor of a variety of adverse health outcomes greater than objective social isolation.”

People who feel isolated act in a hostile way probably because they feel hurt or angry and thus strike back. Some erroneously believe that they can solicit attention and inclusion through citing their misery to compassionate listeners.

Being chronically unhappy or complaining and hostile only produces the opposite effect. Friends, who may have initially been sympathetic become discouraged by the negative energy and feel defeated in their efforts to be supportive.

The contagion effect of emotion is known and well documented. People who are happy are often associated with friends who are happy. Lonely individuals or people who perceive themselves to be lonely and adopt an angry, accusatory or unfriendly demeanor, do not endear themselves to others and may be destined to repeat the cycle of isolation.

Since there is a correlation between the perception of social isolation and health issues, those who feel ostracized further exacerbate their own problems and end up being alone during hard times.

If you feel lonely:

  • Propel yourself to be friendly, appreciative and kind to others.
  • Join groups that resonate with your interests and values.
  • Invite people to your home or to join you in activities.
  • Volunteer your time and care for others.

If you feel socially isolated:

  • Assess whether you are indeed isolated or isolating from others.
  • Be as positive and happy as you can. Remember that happy, kind presentation is inviting.
  • Abstain from thinking that citing your problems will endear you to compassionate listeners.
  • Show interest in others by being curious and asking about their lives.

 

 

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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