This article is dedicated to my mom (Becky) my daughter (Latasha), my two sons (Taylor and Klinton) my niece (Katie) and my beautiful grandchild (Erin). Also to my wonderful friends (Ashley, Nathan, Rachael, Wendy, Lori, Shayla, Jose, Ramona, Dez, and Jamie) who bring sense of meaning and belongingness to my life everyday.
In a previous blog I compared the pain state of rejection with the negative motivational state of loneliness. In this blog I will delve in deeper into the negative motivational state we call loneliness. Loneliness as a motivational state was first described by Psychiatrist Harry Sullivan in 1953, who stated that like many emotional states loneliness motivates us to fulfill one of our basic human drives which in this case is affiliation and the socialization with others. This motivational need he believed first develops in infancy when the infant has complete depends on his or her caregiver. Like the pains of hunger the pain of loneliness motivates us to seek out others who we can have a mutually beneficial relationships with. Indeed, current research supports this early development in loneliness, as we see loneliness in early childhood predicts poor socialization in middle childhood, and loneliness in middle childhood predicts depression and high risk behaviors in adolescence. This is to say, just like eating habits – good or poor – in one period predicts continued poor eating habits in another unless there is some type of intervention.
In furthering our understanding of loneliness Sociologist Robert S. Weiss wrote a seminal book entitled “Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation”. In this book Weiss argued that loneliness can come in two forms. The first form is created when an individuals feels socially isolated from others and subjectively experience less than desirable social interaction. The second type is subjectively lacking any significantly emotionally close relationships and attachments with someone else. Indeed, research since Weiss has indicated that there are two types of loneliness and the intensity of our experience depends on how these two are experienced (i.e. together or separate, loneliness following rejection, or meaning one places on close emotional relationships versus social connection). Additionally, we see the role of each of these based on the age of the individual. Research suggests that through adolescence into early adulthood having several social contacts and friends is important, because this allows someone to experience various types of individuals. These experiences and skills then allows an individual in middle to late adulthood to focus in on just a few emotionally meaningful social relationships. Therefore, it seems social loneliness has more impact on adolescents and young adults whereas emotional loneliness tends to have more of an impact on middle to late aged adults. In my model of social identity – currently being tested – I argue that social loneliness drives us to identify with individuals like us (our in-group social identity) and then through the assimilation and relationship building with those in our in-group we avoid emotional loneliness, which in turn motivates us to maintain connections and enhance our social identity. Next I want to pause before continuing our discussion on specifically loneliness to discuss the difference between loneliness and depression.
Loneliness VS Depression
Many individuals who are experiencing bouts of depression often describe themselves as “lonely” and “isolated”. However, for our sake I want to make a clear difference between the loneliness an individual says they are experiencing when depressed and the negative motivational state we have been discussing here. As stated earlier loneliness is a motivational state much like hunger and thirst, it drives us to seek out social relationships. Depression on the other hand, drives us away from seeking social relationships through avoidance and the lack of desire to socialize with others. I make this distinction because people can at times mislabel depression as just being lonely. However, depression is a much more serious negative state. Therefore the reader is advised to always look at their motivational state when he or she feels lonely, and ask them self whether they feel the need to have social connection or the need to isolate away from others. If the later it is advised to seek help, as this maybe a more serious condition of depression.
Additionally, we should recognize the relationship between loneliness and later depression. In reviewing the depression literature over the past 15 years, there has been many predicting variables that increase the probability of someone experiencing depression. With the exception of social rejection or loss of a loved one, there in my experience has not been a stronger predictor variable than the experience of chronic loneliness. There is strong evidence that even early long past loneliness can predict later development of depression. For example, the chronic experience of loneliness in one’s thirties, predicts with strong confidence the development of depression in one’s fifties. Additionally it should be stated here that the chronic experience of loneliness is also one of the strongest predictors of obesity, mortality, and morbidity. That is to say the less socially and emotionally connected we are with others leads to unhealthy lifestyles both physically and psychologically.
Loneliness across the lifespan
We have noted throughout this blog about how loneliness influences other states of well-being across the lifespan. The question that comes to mind is, when do we experience the most loneliness and why? First we should say we do experience loneliness across the lifespan just like we experience any other motivational state. However, if we were to determine which groups experience the most loneliness it would be the elderly and individuals who are not well suited for living in rural locations.
Later adults are especially susceptible to loneliness, because as we age our social circles and social connections start to shrink and get smaller, as we disengage from work, social activities, and those who are older or of the same age start to pass away. This shrinkage of social circles along with the increased of loneliness and loss of identity has lead a lot of scientists to believe that this is why we see a stark increase in suicide with men starting at around the age of 50, and has been a increasing concern for women. However, we should note that there are many older individuals who do not experience large amounts of loneliness and the question becomes who? Research is clear that older adults who live in social communities and maintain close friendships – and can develop new ones – are less likely to experience loneliness.
Ever think about leaving the hassle and busyness of the city life for the peacefulness of country living? – you may want to think again. Living in rural areas takes a certain adaptive mindset, that allows individuals to cherish the times they spend with others, and accept that there are periods where one will be alone. This tends to be a native trait, that is a trait of someone who has always or mostly lived in rural locations. We find that when individuals leave larger populated areas for the quiet and peace of rural living they often run the risk of experiencing severe bouts of loneliness and can lead to heighten risk of depression and suicidal behaviors. Indeed, individuals not raised in a rural area are at 4x risk of attempting suicide than native rural livers. For those coming from larger more populated areas where there is always the opportunity for social connection, moving to a place in which one has to work and plan maintaining social relationships, can be lonely, stressful, and depressing endeavor. These combined experiences can lead an individuals to experience the hell and chaos of depression and suicidal thoughts rather than the peace and quiet that they wanted to seek out by escaping from city life.
How does loneliness influence other psychological states?
My colleague Barbara Eastom and I recently surveyed 60 college students on measure of loneliness, happiness, quality of life, meaning in life, and social support. We found when statistical dividing individuals into low, moderate, and high loneliness, that individuals who were in the high lonely group had a significantly lower quality of life, meaning in life, and social support, included a thwarted sense of identity. The following figures and graphs illustrate these stark differences.
Why are these findings meaningful? These findings indicate that loneliness does not only influence our social well-being it also influences many other indicators of well-being. Which means that one experiences loneliness, it important not to continue the cycle of loneliness and to seek out meaningful social connections.
Eliminating loneliness through fulfilling the need of belonging.
Social Psychologist Susan Fiske in 2013 offered a model of social belonging that provides a road map for one to combat loneliness in his or her life. This social cognitive model is based on the premise that individuals are motivated by five social processes: The need to belong, the need for understanding, the need for control, self-enhancement, and the need to trust others. When all of these five needs are met they become a buffer to the experience of loneliness.
The need to belonging according to Fiske is the need for strong and stable relationships, and over arch the four other needs that can be divided into cognitive needs and affective needs. The two cognitive needs are the need for understanding and control. Understanding is the ability to maintain shared meaning that makes life more stable and predictable. When we engage in conversation with others we often engage in talking about things that are not only important to us but also to reinforce that our beliefs are stable and predictable through shared meaning with others. This is why it is a very lonely place for individuals who are on the fringe of most communities such as LGTBQ individuals, minority groups, the homeless, and many who suffer from mental illness. Because the majority of the community does not share these group’s qualities and challenges it is hard to create shared meaning and thereby making it harder to full fill the need for understanding. However, even within these fringe groups, when we find others that share our ideas, beliefs, and values our level of loneliness become reduced. The second cognitive need that Fiske mentions is the need for control. By her definition, control is knowing the perceived contingency between one’s behaviors today and some later outcome. As for example, showing up at work on time, will reduce the chance of being fired. What controlling is all about really is understanding that, in a given situation, what behaviors will lead to the best outcome. To figure this out we often look towards our social network and those individuals around us. Being able to access individuals who can help us have control and predictability in our world is important and without this it can lead us to feeling lonely, isolated, and ineffective in what we do.
The last two needs Fiske talks about she refers to as affective needs, this means they are less thought driven and more emotionally driven. The first need is the need for self-enhancement. Self-enhancement is our basic need to feel worthy and improvable. In order to feel worthy and improvable this means we must engage others for feedback and support. The second affective need is the need for trust. For Fiske trust means seeing others as benign and harmless. This means feeling little threat by the company we keep, and to seek out individuals that help us feel safe and secure. It should be noted that trust in Fiske terms is an emotional evaluation, and unfortunately in many social setting such as work, school, and public establishments the form of building trust comes in a cognitive form through rules, regulations, procedures, and policies. However, the best policy in the world does not matter unless an individual is affectively made to feel safe and that others are in essence benign. We do this not by reading policies and procedures but by asking others how they ‘feel’ about the situation. therefore, feeling safe trumps even the best written organizational or public policy or procedure. This may explain why cities who have tough on crime policies and militarize their police force actually feel less safe and there are increases and not decreases in criminal behavior, because a militarized police officer is seen emotionally as a threat and not as a form of trust and protection. This in turn increases the propensity for individuals to enter into self preservation behaviors.
This last section has offered four ways in which loneliness can be thwarted. By engaging in social situations that provide a sense of control and understanding and that establish trust and the ability of engage in self-enhancement we are more likely not to experience loneliness and the negative consequences with continued a chronic loneliness. Most important is we need to find ways to engage each other on emotional and meaningful levels, which may mean setting down the smartphone at dinner or at coffee with friends. It means building communities of inclusiveness where everyone has the ability to engage in the community and opportunities. It means centering policies that protect the community by not creating threat through policy but understanding and trust. It means answering the phone, answering the text message even when we don’t feel like it. But probably most important it means when someone has experienced rejection, feels lonely, expresses sadness, that we actually pay attention, not tell them to ‘just get over it’, and give them the same treatment that we seek when we experience those same emotions. Finally hug someone, tell them you love them, tell them you think about them, and thank them for being a part of your life!!!
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