Aug 15, 2012

Why Loneliness Is Worse Than Smoking

Everyone hates loneliness.

I'm not talking about being alone here. Every now and then we may choose to be alone - so we can think, reflect, ponder, pray, read or just enjoy the silence it brings. But nobody chooses to be lonely. Loneliness is that feeling of emptiness that overcomes you when you want to share something with somebody - an experience, an emotion - but nobody is there to share it with you...

Definitely bad for your emotional well-being, but as Daniel Goleman notes in his book Social Intelligence, the negative consequences go further than that:
"While perpetual arguments are bad for our health, isolating ourselves is worse. Compared to those with a rich web of social connections, those with the fewest close relationships were 4.2 times more likely to come down with the cold, making loneliness riskier than smoking. (p. 229f, emphasis mine)
Now that's a pretty scary statistic - at least if you're scared of the cold (as in the sickness, not the temperature ;-)). But wait a minute, you say. Isn't the risk of catching a cold higher if I hang out with lots of people all the time? Well, it looks like Goleman knew you were going to ask that question:
The more we socialize, the less susceptible to colds we become. This idea seems counterintuitive: don't we increase the likelihood of being exposed to a cold virus the more people we interact with? Sure. But vibrant social connections boost our good moods and limit our negative ones, suppressing cortisol and enhancing immune function under stress. Relationships themselves seem to protect us from the risk of exposure to the very cold virus they pose." (p. 230)
So essentially, here's what he's saying: The risk of being exposed to a cold virus is higher if you hang out with more people. But, the risk of actually catching that virus and getting sick is lower because your immune system works better if you have healthy relationships. The implicit meaning here is that just having people around you isn't enough. Because loneliness is not merely the absence of people in your life. It's more profound than that:
"Paradoxically, loneliness has little or nothing to do with how much time people actually spend by themselves, nor how many social contacts they have in a given day. Instead, it's the paucity of intimate, friendly contacts that leads to loneliness. What matters is the quality of our interactions: their warmth or emotional distance, their supportiveness or negativity. The sense of loneliness, rather than the sheer number of acquaintances and contacts a person actually has, correlates most directly with health: the lonelier a person feels, the poorer immune and cardiovascular function tend to be." (p. 239)
On a side note - in case you were wondering: paucity means 'smallness of quantity' (I had to look that up too ;-)).

In essence, this means that you can have 5,000 Facebook friends and be the loneliest human on the planet. Sad but true. Maybe it would be good for all of us to make sure we cultivate those relationships that are really worth it - quality instead of quantity. We'll all feel better as a consequence - emotionally and physically...

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