Why is loneliness so bad for us anyway?
Updated: Aug 5
Loneliness sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? The answer to feeling lonely or socially disconnected is to put yourself out there, right?
We know from my previous blogs that it’s not that easy. The mere act of scrolling and posting on social media or firing up Grindr and chatting with some buff guy would have us feeling reconnected with the world in a jiffy. If it was that easy, no one would ever feel lonely.
But here we are, feeling socially isolated.
My work focuses on authentic connection. The type of connection that only comes once we start putting our whole selves into the world. No masks. No pretenses. Just our authentic selves.
This is bloody hard to do, as it can feel like the world wants us to conform to whatever stereotype it has for us. We feel pressure to conform to what we perceive others’ expectations of us are. And we pressure ourselves to assume the role of being something – or someone – that we’re not.
When we succumb to the expectations of others and the part of our selves that want us to fit in, we become further disconnected and isolate from our authentic selves. I contend that this is a major source of loneliness in gay men.
So how harmless is loneliness and social isolation?
Chronic loneliness and social isolation is not harmless at all.
In short: it’s killing us.
I want you to read this article, which, despite having a business/workplace focus, is very instructive. It was written by Dr. Emma Seppälä (Yale University and Stanford University) and Dr. Marissa King (Yale University) and neatly brings together how loneliness and the absence of real, meaningful connection affects us physically, mentally and emotionally.
The article cites the book ‘Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection’ by loneliness expert John Cacioppo (University of Chicago) and research by Sarah Pressman (University of California, Irvine), both of which report that obesity reduces longevity by 20 per cent, drinking by 30 per cent and smoking by 50 per cent.
Loneliness? 70 per cent.
Indeed, feelings of chronic loneliness and social isolation increase our chances of suffering a stroke or heart attack by 30 per cent.
Not so harmless is it?
These findings are supported by Hara Estroff Marano in ‘The Dangers of Loneliness’, which appeared in ‘Psychology Today’ in 2003. She writes that chronic loneliness, in adults, ‘is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism. And it increasingly appears to be the cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.’
She also cites a study by John Cacioppo, which detailed how loneliness can compromise our physical, mental and emotional health and well-being. You need to read this.
Estroff Marano writes:
· Perhaps most astonishing, in a survey he [Cacioppo] conducted, doctors themselves confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.
· Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
· Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
· The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
· Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
· Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the nonlonely (sic).
Conversely, as Seppälä and King write, feeling socially connected ‘can strengthen our immune system, lengthen our life and lower rates of suicide and depression.’
To summarise: loneliness bad; social connection good.
As we’ll discover in future posts, not all connection is the same. We must have meaningful connection, the kind that gives us what I call ‘the spark of connection’ [I wrote about this in this post]. We need to put down Facebook, Snapchat, Grindr, Scruff, Squirt, Instagram or whatever we use to passively see what’s happening in the world or arrange another hook-up and connect. Or at least use social media as a tool for real connection if we can’t be with those important to us.
I spoke to my friend Dr Dougal Sutherland from the School of Psychology at the Victoria University of Wellington for an article on another blog in which I write about loneliness.
He wrote that 'loneliness is one of the features of depression. It can occur even when we’re busy connecting with others, but lacking connection in a meaningful way.'
Note 'meaningful', please.
Dougal continues, 'Loneliness can lead to insular thinking – where you focus more and more on your own thoughts and your own negative state. Without the input from others around us we become a closed-loop system, losing the benefit of any external feedback. Over time that can lead to a spiralling down in our mood and mental state, which in turn can lead to a decline in our physical well-being.'
Unless you're having meaningful connections with people consistently, you're at risk of the physical, emotional and mental effects of loneliness. I don't mean that you must get real with everyone. Not at all. You need to be real at least with those people with whom you can be you. Authentically you.
For the socially-isolated gay man
We all feel lonely at points in our life. It’s normal and expected – like when we go through a break-up or mourn the death or absence of a loved one. While this kind of loneliness sucks, it’s completely normal. But when loneliness becomes chronic, we need to prioritise authentic and meaningful connection with ourselves, others and our communities.
Our mental, emotional and physical health and well-being depend on it. Indeed, our lives depend on it.
It’s time to be seen for being the awesome, flawed and beautiful man you are. It's also time to work to de-stigmatise loneliness and social isolation to help prevent the suffering that it eventually brings.
Where to now?
Connection is the antidote to loneliness. Stay connected with me and my work by subscribing to my site. Together, we'll build a community of gay men who want to de-stigmatise loneliness and promote authentic connection within themselves, with others and their communities.
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