I have written many articles on here about loneliness and rejection, mainly because as a social psychologist I believe that these two variables are a root cause of many of our social and psychological problems in the world. One type of loneliness that I have sort of understood intellectually and partly definition wise is emotional loneliness. Emotional loneliness is defined as not have a significant emotional connection with at least one other person. I say at least because we all have different needs and a number of emotional connections. But what has perplexed me as a social psychologist is cases in which a person has several emotionally meaningful and connected relationship, but still feels a deep sense of emotional loneliness. This has perplexed me until I realized that emotionally close relationship is connected with parts of our self-definition and identity – that it is not about how many emotional connections we have, but whether or not given emotional connections bring about a better understanding of who we are and reinforce core aspects of our identity as individuals. Let me provide an example from my own life.
For the last two years, I have been plagued by bouts of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I have tried all the individual psychology techniques to deal with these issues that included: therapy, medication, self-help books, and yes even negative coping mechanisms such as drinking. But none of these were able to dull or alleviate my sense of extreme emotional loneliness and corresponding depression and anxiety. What bothered me was I had plenty of emotionally supportive and meaningful relationships: my kids and my family, but also some very close friends who would message me right back anytime I felt down or needed help – this was my mental block when it came to the loneliness that I was experiencing: I had very close and emotionally supportive relationships that I knew I could tell and experience anything with.
But recently, I started to look at core aspects of myself and identity, and asked a simple question: what part of who I am is missing and is suffering? I looked at being a dad. The answer was no, my kids love me, and we would do anything for each other. Is it my career and being a psychologist? I looked at my current research, and my current teaching position and the answer was no, my co-workers, even though I only been at my current college for six weeks, already tell me how much they valued my work and excited that I am here. Is it being a son or a brother? Well I know me, and my brothers do not talk a lot but recent events over the summer I know without a doubt we are always here there each other. And my relationship with my mom is very emotionally connected. What about being a friend? Here again, I can say recent events in my life have shown me that I am a good friend, with deep emotional connections, and my friends are amazing in return. Then I turned my attention to the importance of being an intimate partner and the value that has in my life. I know from past intimate partnerships that I placed a high value on being a good intimate partner. I came to realize that this area of my life was an issue. I realized that for the last two years I had failed miserably at keeping and maintaining a close significant intimate relationship with someone else. Indeed, at the time I made this realization, I was trying to maintain a non-existent intimate relationship with someone, and in my desire to maintain that I am a good intimate partner, a lot of dysfunction and yes emotional disconnect arose from that situation.
As a psychologist, I started to understand, my experience started to highlight that other aspect of emotional loneliness, that despite having so many emotionally connected relationship I was: (1) lacking one in a core area of who I was, and (2) I was willing to stay in a dysfunctional situation thinking that if I could make it work it would make everything okay. In addition to this, the relationship had become a self-defeating cycle, where in my mind I had to try harder, I had to impress more – which after rejection – lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Loneliness, worthlessness, and feelings of hopelessness are key ingredients in both depression and anxiety.
So, what did I do? I ended the dysfunctional relationship, engaged myself in other emotional close relationships, and for the first time in two years, I have lived with no depression, no anxiety, no emotional loneliness. Not only have I seen the relief of these I feel closer to my other emotionally close relationships – I see my kids, my family, and my friendship in a vibrant and fulfilling new light. I also learned something through this process, I learned that my identity as an intimate partner is not damaged, I only allowed myself to see it as damaged and that there was something wrong with me. I think all too often, especially in intimate relationships, we blame ourselves and feel there must be something wrong with me if the other person does not respond the way an intimate partner should respond.
My journey, I hope this helps others understand what is meant by emotional loneliness, and how it is connected to a part of our core identities. We can have many emotional close relationships, but when a relationship is lacking is a core aspect of who we are it can drive many of our negative emotions and even drive disordered behavior. Letting go of toxic relationships that are not emotionally fulfilling and do not support part of our own core identity can lead to better health and well-being.
To start this article, I want to begin with a simple premise: Physical pain and the pain from being rejected are the same. The human brain and the brain of other social animals reacts the same whether someone is dying from a chronic illness, being shocked, or being dumped by an intimate partner or being denied entry into a group. However, we for some reason like to separate the two, and place rejection within the realm of emotions (which as humans we falsely think are controllable) and physical injury in the domain of the uncontrollable (after all it was not their fault the sidewalk was there when they fell off their bike while trying to do a hand stand). What I mean by these statements is we tend to empathize with physical injury and forgive the reasons, but we tend to consider the suffering from reject as a sign of weakness and not being of hardy stalk. However, our world view of rejection is wrong, and by correcting this view, we can heal from the pain of rejection better, heal faster, and regain a sense of stability. To do this I think it is useful to use a common form of rejection and that is intimate partner rejection and I want to compare that to a more long-term physical disease such as cancer. I like this analogy because both rejection of an intimate partner and the development of cancer can occur very quickly or they both can sit dormant for years until an escalating moment. The second, is once cancer and the possibility of the loss of an intimate partner is made apparent both disease states tend to accelerate in their progression. Third, once the cancer is removed or the person leaves there is no guarantee of recovery or that one will not experience the disease ever again. Finally, I think this is a good analogy because we need to be honest both cancer and rejection from a close intimate partner can both lead to death. Indeed, the number one cause of homicide in the United States is intimate partner homicide, and over the past three decades cheating – the ultimate form of rejection – has become the number one reason for intimate partner homicide. Additionally, suicidal behavior is often followed by rejection, especially of a close intimate partner. With these four similarities in mind let us move on and explore how we can heal successfully.
I want to start our comparison by first stating a simple disease step model, I think by using this simple model it will be easier to come to understand how rejection occurs and the pain process:
There are a few qualities of this comparison that I like to make. First is that it is a progression, while it may seem like it at times, when two people are truly intimately connected they do not just wake up one morning and say “I am leaving”. There is always a progression that continually erodes the relationship much like a cancer erodes and destroys a healthy body. A good example of this is research that interviewed divorced individuals and indicated that when the individual really starts to analyze their relationship, the relationship started to erode about two years before the individuals start to realize there is a problem.
The second thing that I hope the reader recognizes is that while this is a very general model, the processes are almost identical – BUT – the major difference is how the individual tends to respond, especially as both diseases progress. This is largely due to our belief systems that (1) a person should have control over their relationship, and (2) if there is a problem one should be able to fix it, if the couple ‘really’ loves each other. I think it is worth taking some time exploring these two faulty belief systems. The first is the illusion of control, the fact is, you and your partner, can do everything perfect. You can follow all the relationship advise, treat each other with complete respect, cherish one another completely, and guess what? – You can still end up being a divorce statistic. Please do not take this as a criticism of humans and our ability to have long lasting relationships. Remember the analogy between physical disease and rejection. A person can eat right, exercise, refrain from toxins and they can still end up having cancer or dying young of heart disease. This same principle applies to human relationships. With that being said, we should not end up be complete skeptics of our health or our relationships. The person who eats right and exercises will have a much better quality of life even if they still end up with a disease. The same goes with relationships, while all relationships may end, the more we invest healthily into them the higher the quality of experiences we have. The second illusion that if two people really love each other they should be able to fix it, I think comes from our overall illusion that we can also control our own fate.
Especially in highly individualistic societies, like the one here in the United States, individuals tend to believe that everything good and bad that a person does OR that a person experiences is solely due to the actions and beliefs of that individual. In other words, we maintain bad beliefs such as “she broke up with you because you are a bad person”, or “If he can’t love you because of who you are, no one else is going to either”. Now we should qualify this, because for much of western society’s history we did this with physical diseases, so once we believed that people got cancer because the gods were punishing them for being a sinner, or a person has a mental illness because they had a weak mind that allowed them to be possessed by some demon. It was not until western medicine and science started to debunk these myths that we started to see physical diseases as we do today – Although there are still some people who believe that diseases are a punishment from god, but that a whole other article. It is in this same tradition of science that I write this article, in that we know enough scientifically about human relationships, that placing the entire fault for rejection on a single person or a single occurrence or process is ridiculous. So, if it is not because one person changes, that ruins a relationship, then what is it? As you think about this question you probably thinking that it is an unsolvable question, but it is actually fairly simple, change is the culprit to eventual rejection. But before I explain this there is one more faulty belief system that we must first address. That faulty belief is that we as individuals do not change greatly over time, and that our personality, beliefs, and who we are at the core does not change. The fact is you will be a different person five years from now than you are today. Indeed, you probably been a different person several times today already. Let me provide a simple example, what if someone secretly recorded you alone in your bedroom, out with friends at night, playing with your kids, and let us say giving a big work presentation. I am willing to bet if I blurred your face and changed your voice in each scenario and played it back to you, you would report seeing and hearing four (amazing) but different individuals. The truth is we are who we are based on (a) the demands of the situation, (b) our skills and ability to respond to the situation, and (c) our ability to comprehend the situation. Additionally, each situation demands something different from us, and therefore we must respond to a situation differently. However, because it would make us crazy to think we have so many different selves, which would lead us to feeling very unstable, our mind and brain have developed the illusion that we are consistent and stable overtime. In fact, we have gotten so good at this that we can change memories going clear back into childhood to make them congruent with who we are today without even realizing it is happening. The problem is, if I am stable and that is core to who I am, then my relationships remain stable and the same, because they are also core to my own identity. Therefore, any time a person has relationship difficulties, they sadly try to reset the relationship to “how we use to be when we first fell in love”. As you can guess, this almost always ends up failing. Indeed, most successful couples when they reach a point of recognizing their relationship has eroded, recognize first how much they and their partner has changed, and instead of rekindling the old flame, they go through process of courting and falling in love with this new person and leave that old relationship behind. It is as Mignon McLaughlin stated, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” – but should add with the same person as they are today.
So the question that remains is given that any relationship no matter of the healthy behaviors the couple engages in, how does one have a long lasting relationship and decrease the chances of eventual rejection and loss.
#1 – Engage in healthy relationship behaviors, say “I love you” daily, touch, communicate, be honest with feelings for each other, doing things together, etc. For this there are plenty of relationship books that can help couples learn exercises of a health relationship.
#2 – Self-awareness. The ability to recognize one’s own physical and mental state as it relates to one’s situation is what we call self-awareness. We often go through our day with a narrow window of self-awareness because that all we really need to get through the common roles we have in life. However, it is advised to at least once a week for at least 30 minutes a person becomes completely self-aware of their physical, social, and psychological world. After which, engaging in self-reflection about how one is doing, how one is changing, and how one is feeling about their current situation is an important and provides a person with a guide. This can be done through several mediums such as journaling, yoga, meditation, prayer (if your religious), or any form activity that allows you to be aware of where you are completely as a person.
#3 – Recognize and embrace change. Accept that change is going to happen and that means you will need to continually work at your relationship. Never assume that your relationship is like a rock and is unbendable or unbreakable.
#4 – Continually try new things. Stagnation is like stopping exercise or eating right when it comes to relationship health. Yes there are times in all our lives when we do the day-to-day grind. However, actively seeking ways to engage one’s interest, discover new things, and engage one’s world differently can provide great learning opportunities and relationship bonding moments.
#5 – This probably should be number 1 – but remember if you decide to live in a radioactive bucket – do not be surprised if you get cancer. In same vein, if you live your life with toxic people, do not be surprised if you always are experiencing rejection and loss. Sometimes the people we desire – are reason for our disease – just like I know if I continue eating chocolate cake I will gain weight and run risk of heart disease.
#6 – Be human! Often, we think that the perfect relationship is a relationship without conflict and problems. We forget that relationships are made by imperfect people, and therefore are inherently not perfect. Be honest with feelings, do not hide your faults, and encourage your partner to do the same.
#7 – Do not ignore other social relationships. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement of an intimate relationship we let other important relationships in our lives weaken or even completely abandoned. Remember that we are a social creators, and we all have a differing needs for both social connections and emotional connections. When we do not maintain the needed level for both, we can find ourselves in deep despair, loneliness, and possibly depression. While it is wonderful to fall in love, remember that you both need to fall in love with each other’s complete world.
#8 – Maintain connection through common beliefs. Interestingly the idea of opposite attracts is not true when it comes to long successful relationships. Indeed, individuals who are in long-term relationships – and are still in love – have the same or similar belief systems and attitudes. Identify these early on in a relationship and nurture them together.
#9 – Intimate relationship that include sexuality, should be a vibrant sexuality. I often gross out my younger students when lecturing on long-term relationships, because I ask “how many have grandparents who were married for most of their lives and still really love each other?”. I then explain to these students that when it comes to sexuality, your grandparents were – and still probably are – freaks in the bedroom. Indeed, we find that individuals in long-term loving relationships tend to try new things, get adventurous with each other, and never let their sexually intimate life become stagnate. Now there are always those exceptions where one or both partners, usually due to health problems, lose interest in sex and we know that sex interests vary across the life span. We still find that individual who are going through a period of low sexuality or loss of their sexual life, tend to compensate in different ways such as increasing and diversifying other pleasurable couple activities.
#10 – Understand your own ‘life space’ and the life space of your partner. A famous social psychologist, Kirt Lewin, introduced the idea of life space, as a way to try and visually represent human behavior. If you can imagine a large bubble, that contains all of a person possibilities, then you understand visually what one’s life space is. But first what is meant by all of a person’s possibilities? Lewin recognized that every situation that we find our self in there is a range of possible reactions to that situation. All of one’s possible reactions is one’s life space. So, let me give an example, a school teacher who is making 40,000 a year, is at a car show where she is presented with the opportunity to purchase a $200,000 luxury car. Is this part of the teacher’s life space or range of possibilities? Given her income, cost of insurance, other financial obligations, the probability of buying the luxury car given the teacher’s current life space is very very small. Now the teacher recognizing that the car is not within her current life space can do things to add to it, life get a higher paying job, pay off lots of bills etc etc. But unfortunately, we do not live in a world of what we could do, we often live in the here and now, and understanding our current life space helps us understand our limits and abilities when it comes to actually engaging in a intimate relationship. Once we are aware of it, then and only then can we recognize how it will impact our current relationship, but also what we need to work at, so that the range of possibilities within a relationship can increase through the expansion of our own life space. The other reason for bring up the concept of life space is we often need to recognize the boundaries of our partner’s life space. If you are approaching a relationship with the intent on changing someone, you might as well start saving for the divorce now. For a person to change they must recognize the limitations of their own life space and have the tools and ability to expand their space. Now this does not mean if someone does not meet all your standards that you should not consider being in a relationship with them, but it does mean that you will need to sacrifice something to have that relationship – and sometimes sacrifice is okay.
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By: Curtis Peterson ©
The Case Study of Alice
A reader (who we will call Alice) messaged me and asked “Dear Curtis, I have many friends and family that are around all the time, but why despite all this, do I feel so lonely?”. I like to say that this is a rare question but over the past years since I have started studying loneliness it is, unfortunately, the most common question I am asked. The first person to write about the form of loneliness Alice was experiencing was Robert Weiss in 1975 and he coined the term “emotional isolation” more popularly known as “emotional loneliness.” Since this time, we have found that emotional loneliness is the most common and most profound type of loneliness affecting our health and well-being, even more than obesity, not exercising, and not eating right. In fact, chronic emotional loneliness predicts when one is going to die 3x better and more accurately than one’s physical health. To understand emotional loneliness, we must start with a common premise: human beings are social creatures and need other people. Indeed, research has shown that when we deny ourselves social interaction, the body starts to shut down as if it is dying of thirst or hunger. With this premise let us begin to explore what emotional loneliness is and what you can do about it.
What is emotional loneliness?
Emotional loneliness is defined as a deep feeling of loss of emotional connection with others, despite one’s level of current social connection. It is the person who “feels lonely in the crowd,” or feels like they don’t fit in, and no one is close to them or understands them. Before moving on, I should state, that emotional loneliness is something that most everyone will experience at least once in their lifetime, it is not a dysfunctional emotion nor is it maladaptive one. In fact, it is very adaptive, because it motivates us to reduce it, which helps individuals to seek out emotional connections with others. However, there is a subset of the population, where emotional loneliness can cause a bout of severe depression. Additionally, one of the symptoms of depression is the feeling of emotional loneliness. The difference between loneliness when someone is depressed and normative loneliness, is individuals with normative loneliness, although they may feel down, seek out emotional emotional connection. For people who are depressed, the feelings of loneliness become a reinforcing cycle of one’s self-defeating beliefs and ideas of who they are which aid in the continued cycle of depression. If you are reading this article and experiencing loneliness, I ask that you pay close attention to this difference, and if you feel that you have depression and not normative loneliness, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help.
In Alice’s case, after visiting with a mental health professional decided she was not depressed but just felt lonely. She concluded this with her mental health professional because she lacked any of the other symptoms associated with depression. So, what was making Alice feel so lonely if it was not an emotional crisis or depressive state? After chatting with Alice for a while I asked her “Tell me who you are as a person?” and well of course she gave the standard “mom, employee, wife, blah, blah” for which I asked again “no who are you as a person, who is ‘Alice’?”. To which she replied, “I am not sure what you’re asking, and if I did, I am not sure what the answer would be.” At that moment, I knew we had discovered the source of Alice’s emotional loneliness!
Why do people experience emotional loneliness: attachment, industry, and identity?
When I started studing loneliness, I developed a basic theory that one’s identity, specifically, a weak or damaged identity, drives a person’s experience of loneliness. Since that time, I have shown that loneliness is negatively associated with one’s sense of identity, that the positive outcomes of a strong identity are the opposite of adverse outcomes of loneliness, and that when you make a person’s identity salient and meaningful within a situation this reduces their evaluation of being lonely. So, it is worth exploring what an identity is and how it develops.
To understand identity, we must start with a discussion of a term William James (father of American Psychology) coined in 1896 called the “self-concept.” James defined the self-concept as “the totality of everything a person can call theirs.” James argued – and research since James has confirmed – there are two elements of the self-concept:
- The social self (later termed social identity) which is how someone defines them self in their social world and,
- the personal self which is everything that makes an individual who they are separate from other people. His term for the personal-self was the ‘spiritual self,’ which he wanted to use to emphasize everything that makes an individual unique.
To understand why emotional loneliness is caused by lack of identity we must see how it develops through the lifespan. For this, we will use some different theories of development starting with a very popular theory know as “attachment theory.”
Attachment theory originally attempted to explain how an infant becomes attached to their caregiver, and based on the responsiveness of the caregiver to the infant’s needs determined how the infant would socially interact with others. The purest of attachment theory would state that this infancy attachment process determines how an individual will relate with others throughout their lifespan. A more probable explanation is that early attachment determines a pattern of relatedness that if not broken through life experiences can determine how one will relate with others. In other words, if you had a bad, uncaring parent, this does not necessarily mean you bound only to have poor quality relationships!! What we do know is that individual’s who currently have an insecure attachment style (i.e. avoiding social relationships or self-destructive or avoidant when in a relationship) is negatively associated with the development of a healthy identity and positively related to experiences of chronic emotional loneliness.
What does this mean? Sadly, this means that individuals who are unable to develop social and intimate relationship are already at a disadvantage when it comes to loneliness. However, in Alice’s case, she had very loving parents and relatives and was raised in an emotionally close family. But, in recent years she has had a series of weak and unsupportive relationships, and she measured high on the subscale of “fearful-avoidant” on a measure of attachment style. But what does this have to do with identity?
The problem with having poor attachment style is that we often lack or do not trust feedback about who we are as an individual. Individuals with a poor attachment style are less likely to believe people when they say “you are a good parent” or “I am so happy you work for our organization.” By not being able to trust the feedback from others the individual’s identity becomes more and more diluted and less meaningful, and the individual start to feel more and more unimportant despite what others say about them. This weakening of a self-concept makes us feel less connected with others, and as a social being, we must know – and believe – that we have value to others. This loss of emotional value creates a sense of loneliness even when we are around others. There are two other developmental concepts originally presented by Erik Erickson, called industry and identity that we should discuss to finish the developmental story towards emotional loneliness. Erickson theorized that during different ages, we go through what he called a social-emotional crisis. If we successfully make it through a given crisis, it helps us develop into healthy and able individual. The crisis that Erickson believed we faced in late childhood was the crisis of industry versus inferiority. To understand this crisis read the two descriptions of Ed and Billy.
Ed: Ed recently started playing guitar, despite being new at it, his parents see his potential and encourages him to continue playing. A few times, Ed played his guitar for his class, his classmates cheered, and his friends thought he was cool.
Billy: Like Ed, Billy wanted to play guitar, however, when he signed up for lessons, his parents told him it would probably be a waste and that they better get their monies worth. His parents would only allow Billy to practice when they were at work, so they didn’t have to listen to “that noise.” When he told his friends what he was doing, they laughed at him and said he should just give that up before he embarrasses himself.
Now, the examples of Ed and Billy I will admit are extreme examples, but I would be willing to guess that most of us have experienced life somewhere between Ed and Billy. Second I would like to say that this is also not a plug to continue diluting children’s potential by giving everyone a trophy. But rather I would like to discuss – if both Ed and Billy had the same potential – what is each boy learning based on their social experiences ? In Ed’s case, Erickson would argue that he is developing industry. Industry is where one learns that what he or she does has meaning to others and has some social value. In Billy’s case, Erickson would argue what Billy is learning is sense of inferiority in that he has no social value, and that this lack of social value must be something about Billy and not about those individuals who are discouraging him. Now Erickson’s model is a socioemotional model, in that what the person is experiencing, is not necessarily a rationale experience, Billy may be very naturally talented, but because of his experience with others he feels has no talent and therefore no worth – at least when it comes to guitar playing. This disconnect between what we do and feedback from others is the starting recipe for the development of emotional loneliness through reduced sense of a meaningful identity.
Not only does Billy feel inferior, but he also is not getting enough feedback from those who are important to him to develop a well defined identity. As Billy enters adolescences, this is going to inform him about his developing identity. Erickson argued that during the ‘teenage years’ individuals experience the crisis of identity versus role confusion. Let us follow this developmental trajectory. An individual has good healthy attachments with others, and experience industry during middle childhood. This experience provides him or her with the confidence to explore and solidify his or her identity through the adolescent years leading to a clear identity which provides future direction as the individual enters adulthood. However, if a young adolescent, has weak attachments with others – and has received feedback that what he or she does have little value – this makes the individual more likely to be a crowd follower or a ‘loner’ during adolescence. These experiences may lead to an undefined identity, and probably taking on the identity of others leading to confusion between how one thinks he or she ought to be and the behaviors they take on from following others. This experience is not a good start to the beginning of adulthood and those young crowds the individual followed start to dissolve. You may be asking, ‘well what about Alice, you said that she had a healthy and supportive family?’. To that, I would say yes I agree, she had the optimal developmental experiences that should have resulted in a strong identity and little experiences of emotional loneliness. However, this is why I like telling the story of Alice because she emphasizes something that we often underestimate and that is our current situation and recent social experiences have a big impact on us. That is to say that our current situation matters and has an immense impact on what we experience. Indeed, research on counseling techniques indicates that working with a person’s current experiences of their symptoms is far more successful than trying to find and understand the deep rooted developmental experiences that promote current symptoms.
For Alice, the last few years she has had small but continues insults to her identity. These hits include a failed marriage which damaged her identity as a wife, and her grown children do not call very often, insulting her identity as a mother. On top of this after 15 years as an administrative assistant, her employer cut her position, eliminating an important social identity. Though she has been experiencing these insults for several months now, she started to notice that when she visited her family or went out with friends, she felt like an outsider, and thought that no one understood who she was. This experience eventually evolved in developing a complete emotional disconnect between her and those around her. Then came the wrong kind of advice, you know the advice I am talking about I am sure “that company didn’t deserve you anyways”, “you were meant to do better things”, “it is your kids not you”, “he wasn’t right for you anyways” – you know that advice that sounds right when we give it, but we feel awful when receiving it. The following provides how these messages are interpreted by the lonely person to understand why this is a bad way to support someone.
Now we, I believe, are well-intending when we provide support to our friends and family, but it is important to note that we should be tuned into the other people in a way we can tell if they are emotionally withdrawing before giving said advice. Unfortunately, in an attempt to resolve our own emotional distress and dissonance, we often give advice with no intent on relieving the receiver distress, but making our self feel more emotionally secure and worthy. This creates even more emotional distance between the emotionally lonely person and the well intending person, creating the possibility of chronic loneliness and which at it’s worst can lead to severe depression and poor physical health. So what should we do if someone we know is experiencing emotional loneliness, or if we are experiencing emotional loneliness?
Reducing emotional loneliness.
The emotionally lonely individual. In Alice’s case, I encouraged her to focus more on strengthening her important identities. This included reaching out to her children and visiting them, expressing what her intimate relationship needs are to potential future partners, and share her knowledge of administrative processes by volunteering in administrative capacities for local non-profit charities. Before moving on with Alice’s outcome I want the reader to note the qualities of these activities:
- Active involvement. Note that each of the things Alice and I agreed on doing required her to engage her world actively. I bit of warning if an individual is very resistant to actively engage their world this is a warning sign that they may be suffering from depression.
- Skill utilization. Each of the active requires Alice to engage in activities that are associated with a given identity.
- Socially meaningful. Each activity must not only provide Alice with a sense of meaning, but it must also contain a value for those around Alice.
- Personally meaningful. Each activity is something significant and meaningful to the individual and is not a task for a task’s sake. You may also notice it not a canned set of instructions on what to do when someone is experiencing emotional loneliness; they are all tasks directly related to who Alice sees herself as.
So, what was the outcome of Alice? Last time I talked with Alice, about three months after she initially contacted me, she is doing much better. She enjoys being with her friends and family again and feels like she has a place when she does visit them. Although she still does not have a steady intimate relationship, she said that being able to express her needs and wants allows the person to make decisions to continue seeing her not because she is a “bad girlfriend” but because they were not willing to accept her. She also is now a regular feature at a local non-profit providing office administrative classes, for a job development program. Alice said while her kids still do not call her as much, she enjoys how they light up and get excited when she visits. Probably more important Alice stated that when she does visit her kids they started asking her for ‘motherly advice.’
What do I do when I know someone who is emotionally lonely? First I would like to say, that the emotionally lonely person is a very good manipulator of a social situation to hide their emotions of loneliness and disconnection. So if your friend or family does express their loneliness, more than likely, they have been experiencing loneliness for a very long time. This means starting with “it will be okay” is a bad starter – or – as one person told me, they felt it was something about them that made the person lonely and immediately started asking what they had to do wrong to make them feel that way. I hope by this point the reader understands that emotional loneliness develops over time as the person experiences various insults to a meaningful identity(s) they hold about them self. Here is a list of potential to-dos:
- The best first liner is “when did you start feeling this way?” and in their answer try to find the insults they experienced that impact their identity.
- Encourage them to engage in activities they once found enjoyable.
- Try to provide opportunities for them to experience a positive view of their identity and who they are as a person.
- Encourage them to help with social activities utilizing skills you know they have.
- Encourage them to engage in helping behaviors like volunteering their time to meaningful charitable activities.
Again, before I make some concluding remarks, it is imperative to state, that if your friend or family member is resistant or avoidant of doing these things, they may be suffering from depression and at that point, it would be worth encouraging them to seek professional help. In conclusion, I hope that you have read some useful information, and that in the world where who one is becoming more and more diluted – and that making meaningful social connections is becoming increasingly hard, -that we remember that what makes us human is our need to have a significant social role in this world of ours. I encourage all my readers to make sure you engage in something socially meaningful every day, beyond likes on Facebook.
If you need more information about loneliness or are experiencing loneliness and need help please email me at email@example.com
By: Curtis Peterson ©
Recently I have been criticized for my views on loneliness, even though these views are deeply seated in current research on the topic of loneliness. I would like to respond to some of the criticisms I have received. For this blog, I want to take on one of the most salient criticisms I have received
Criticism 1: Loneliness is not a product of an individual’s social world, but rather a disposition of a person and psychological disorders.
This criticism mostly comes from individuals who work in the mental health field, and work with individuals who report being extremely lonely. In this view, many of the individuals who are upset with my notion that loneliness is deeply seated within one’s social experiences, claim that loneliness is part of one’s psychological disorder and therefore should be treated on the individual level.
However, there are fundemental problems with this argument. The first comes from science dating back to the 1940s and is supported by current research, and that is loneliness is not a symptom of psychological disorders, but are a consequence of the social allienation most individuals with psychological disorders experience.
There is only one exception to this rule, and that is for individuals who experience depression. But, loneliness, when someone is in a bout of depression, is qualitatively different than the normative loneliness that everyone experiences. Loneliness during depression drives us away from seeking social and emotional connections, while normative loneliness drives us to seek out a social and emotional connection to alleviate the negative emotional state associated with the experience of loneliness. For me, there is another very important reason to separate loneliness from depression, and that comes from recent research conducted with individuals who have made serious suicide attempts and individuals who display suicidal thoughts. According to this research, individuals who are diagnosed with depression seem to only have suicidal ideation and attempts when they also score high on scales of normative loneliness – such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale. This is important because it provides a window into what drives individuals who are experiencing depression and when they are at risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts.
The second fundamental problem with loneliness only being a feature of psychological disorders that are self-driven is that everyone can experience loneliness regardless of their mental state. In fact, loneliness is a fact of being human. One reason that some individuals may argue that it is not is we all have varying degrees of the need to have social and emotional connections with other individuals. Indeed, most of the individuals that disagree with me have very low needs for social and emotional relationships. Loneliness and social connection as a drive system are very much like our system for hunger and thirst. Some individuals need for more food intake – and make sure they get three meals a day -and some individuals only have the desire to eat maybe once during the day. Loneliness is the same way, some individuals need a constant stream of socialization and emotional connection, whereas others need very little. Unfortunately the high-level person – especially in American culture – are considered needy, dependent, and weak – whereas individuals who have very little need are seen as strong and independent. While I would argue that being at either extreme can lead to dysfunction – just like too much food can lead to obesity, and too little food can lead to anorexia – the assumption that low social need people are stronger than high need individuals is just empirically false. There is no evidence in the empirical literature to suggest that individuals differ on how “strong” and “independent” they are based on their need for social and emotional connections.
My main goal for refuting the claim that loneliness is a feature of one’s disposition is in our modern world individuals are becoming more and more disconnected from each other. Evidence indicates that loneliness and the negative physical and psychological consequences of continued chronic loneliness are on the increase especially among at risk populations such as teens, elderly, and individuals who are members of stigmatized groups. Therefore, loneliness as an increasing epidemic in our society needs to be addressed on the social and cultural level, and we should let go of old unsupported notions that loneliness is a feature of one’s disposition. I make this plea that we should look at loneliness as a disease of society because the only long-term solution and “cure” for loneliness are for one to meet their social and emotional connections with others, through engaging in their social life.
By: Curtis Peterson ©
This blog describes the historical development of the study of loneliness
Early conceptions of loneliness associated the experience of loneliness with more dispositional and personality qualities rather than as a part of normal social motivational processes. Additionally, according to early conceptualizations of loneliness, the experience of loneliness often leads to dysfunctional behaviors. Early focus on consequences of loneliness included study of the lonely housewife and cheating behaviors (Sells, 1948) or the lonely soldier drinking excessively and engaging in sexually promiscuous behaviors (Frosdick, 1918). Indeed, as will be indicated later in this chapter, individuals who experience severe levels of loneliness can lead to dysfunctional ways in alleviating that loneliness. The issue of these early conceptualizations of loneliness and consequences is that they were antidotal and were not measured by any objective means. As far as studies that directly address loneliness, according to the PsycINFO database, the earliest research was by Watson (1930) who looked at what makes educated individuals happy. In this exploration Watson found that loneliness was negatively associated with happiness, suggesting that loneliness was a dysfunctional process. Later in 1948, research by Thompson found that individuals who scored high on different psychosis scales on the ‘Minnesota Multphasic Personality Inventory’ (MMPI) also scored high on a subscale of loneliness. This lead Thompson to make similar conclusions as Watson in 1930 that loneliness was (a) a dysfunctional process and (b) that loneliness must somehow be more related to one’s disposition rather than the situational or social experiences of a person. The other aspect of Thompson’s research that will influence contemporary research is the notion that loneliness is closely related to depression, and is a key symptom. Indeed, current research has found a strong association between the experience of loneliness in one-time period (ex. middle childhood) and the development of depression in later time period (ex. adolescence) (Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014). Additionally, depressive symptoms tend to include analogous experiences of loneliness (Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014).
In contrast to Thompson (1948) where loneliness is seen as a feature of psychosis, Brooks (1933) asked rural psychiatrist’s whether social isolation (as defined as monotony and lonesomeness) was the cause of psychosis. While the results were mixed, Brooks concluded that social isolation is symptomatic of psychosis but does not cause psychosis. Rather, he concluded that poor socializing skills and coping skills that evolved from psychotic personality more likely lead to isolation and the experience of lonesomeness. This conclusion is used to explain the association between early experiences of loneliness and later experiences of depression (Jones, et al. 2011; Anderson, Miller, Riger, Dill, & Sedikides,1994; Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010; Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014). For example, Jones, et al. (2011) found an association between loneliness in middle school children and adolescence’s experience of depression. These authors concluded that the experience of loneliness in middle childhood thwarted these children’s ability to develop socializing skills necessary to be a part of forming social relationships in adolescence leading to depression. The problem with Brooks (1933) and Jones, et al. (2011) conclusion is that they rely on descriptive and correlational methods, so it is purely theoretical on how early experiences of loneliness indeed predicts later development of depression.
The next stage in the development of the understanding of loneliness came from Sullivan in 1953 who was one of the first to define loneliness as a developmental – personality process. That is to say that loneliness is driven by the person’s disposition and attachment that occurs in early childhood. This idea of attachment and loneliness is still supported in today’s literature (Baumeister, & Leary, 1995), however, the notion of the lonely personality is not strongly supported (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010). Rather loneliness is seen more as a need drive, similar to the need for food, where some individuals need a lot and some people need just a little to sustain their functioning (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Probably the greatest legacy of Sullivan’s (1953) work is that it also provided a consistent definition of loneliness as “the need for intimate exchange with fellow being … with respect to satisfaction and security” (p. 261), the loss for which according to Sullivan causes “the driving of this system may integrate interpersonal situations despite severe anxiety.” (p. 262). In other words, the experience of loneliness creates a negative anxiety state which motivates an individual to relieve that negative state through interpersonal contact, despite the anxiety that accompanies the loneliness state. While this definition will be expounded on, specifically by Weiss (1973/1985), this definition remains the basic way psychologists have defined loneliness since.
The next evolution of the study of loneliness came in the 1970s with Weiss (1973/1985) book “Loneliness: The experience of Emotional and Social Isolation”. In this work Weiss argues that there are two types of loneliness. The first Weiss defined as emotional loneliness which is a negative affective state in which a person lacks close emotional ties with someone else. The second is social loneliness, or in Weiss’s terms social isolation, as a state of lacking sufficient social connections. Weiss used the term social isolation to emphasize the point that individuals who experience social isolation evaluate not having a sufficient number of social connections and social support in their life. Social isolation differs from emotional loneliness, in that emotional loneliness is the feeling of loss of close emotional relationship(s), whereas social isolation is a lack of sufficient social relationships, where close emotional or utility social support type relationships. Research since Weiss has supported the notion that there are two different types of loneliness, mainly from psychometric evidence (Vassar, & Crosby, 2008). The term social isolation continues to be used in contemporary research as defining social loneliness whereas the term loneliness often refers to emotional loneliness (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Capitanio, 2014). In addition to differentiating the two types of loneliness, Weiss (1973/1985) also introduced the idea that loneliness was not a dysfunctional process, but rather an ordinary motivational socializing processes. That is to say, according to Weiss, we are all driven to maintain a certain level of social and emotional connection and when our subjective experience goes below that individual threshold, we experience the negative state of loneliness. This, according to Weiss, drives us to either seek out emotional or social relationships. However, as will be presented in the contemporary research sections, individuals do not always go about seeking social connection in functional ways when experiencing loneliness (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010).
In the 1980s and 1990s researchers became more and more interested in the reasons why individuals experience loneliness, beyond the subjective threshold, most likely driven by standardized measures such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russel, Peplau, &Ferguson, 1978, Russel, 1996), which remains the most cited loneliness measurement scale used today (Ang, Mansor, & Tan, 2014). Since originally introduced, the UCLA Loneliness Scale has seen three revisions and development of two short forms of the measurement tool (Durak, & Senol-Durak, 2010). Additionally, the measure is the most translated scale on loneliness and has been translated and validated for populations from Zimbabwe (Wilson, Cutts, Lees, Mapungwana, & Maunganidze, 1992) to one of the most recent translations for the Turkish culture by Durak and Senol-Durak in 2010. The UCLA Loneliness Scale can be found in Appendix A.
With the advent of psychometric measures, some notable research that would influence the field up to current times were developed. From a cognitive perspective Conoley and Gerber (1985) investigated how loneliness affects reframing process of viewing the self and others. One of the more significant works that came out of the early 1990s was WcWhirter (1990), who provided one of the first reviews of the literature on loneliness, and the implications of counseling and research. Significant to WcWirter’s review was the presentation of data that indicated loneliness is a unique experience separate from any other dysfunctional state whether social (loss of loved one) or internal (depression or distressing experience) experiences. Indeed, WcWirter’s assertions have continued to be supported by current research (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010). Other research worth noting of the early 1990s is the work of Lunt (1991), who continued the attributional work done by Conoley and Garber in 1985 and provided as causal model of loneliness based on attributional models. Using network and cluster analysis techniques, Lunt (1991) developed a thirteen variable model that clustered into five different groups. These clusters include: cluster one (physical unattractive and unpleasant personality), cluster two (others’ own groups-relationships, others’ lack of trying, and others’ fears), cluster three (impersonal situations and lack of opportunity), cluster four (lack of knowledge, lack of trying, shyness, and fear of rejection), and cluster five (pessimism and unlucky). While it is important to understand that these clusters developed not under causal experimental design, but by using psychometrics measures and self-report, they tend to support other self-report studies, but caution should be taken as this is not an experimental causal model but a psychometric – theoretical causal model. The significant outcome of Lunt’s (1991) study that is still an underlying assumption of the experience of loneliness today is the subjective cognitive evaluation. That is to say, loneliness suffered by an individual comes from a subjectively calculated estimate of experiencing of either loss of social connections or loss of close emotional connections with others. It is this evaluation that drives an individual attribution of to state of being, in Lunt’s work usually evaluated within one of the five clusters.
The 1990s study of loneliness saw a lot of attention and can be summarized in two late 1990 articles by Rockach and Brock (1997) on loneliness and life changes and Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) article entitled “Emotion”. By the late 1990s with the advent of more accessible use of computers and statistical software, more studies on loneliness using more advanced statistical methodology such as factorial analysis continued to garner support for a five factor model of loneliness that Lunt (1991) proposed. By the late 1990s, a five factor model which included (1) emotional distress, (2) social inadequacy and alienation, (3) growth and discovery, (4) interpersonal isolation, and (5) self-alienation seemed to be well support with-in the literature (Rockach & Brock, 1997). Work that supported this evidence and expanded on different dimensions of loneliness was that of Rockach and Brock in 1997.
Rockach and Brock (1997) investigated the five-factor model using a general population sample (versus traditional convenient sample of college students) that included 633 participants ranging in age from 13 to 87. In addition to using a general population sample, Rockach and Brock tested to see if there was variation among these five factors on five other variables that included (1) gender, (2) relationship status, (3) chronic or episodic loneliness, (4) current or past experience of loneliness, and (5) age at which loneliness is or was experienced. According to their findings, men’s experience of loneliness had greater loading on interpersonal isolation and perceived social alienation. Whereas women did not differ from the general population. The gender difference tends to be consistent with current findings with men experiencing loneliness more frequently, especially as they age (Victor & Bowling, 2012). For relationships, they found that individuals who were married experience loneliness the most intensely, and loaded heavily on growth and discovery, interpersonal isolation, and self-alienation. While consistent with current research (Segrin, Powell, Givertz, & Brackin, 2003) and research before Rockach and Brock (1997), divorced individuals experienced loneliness most frequently.
The third variable tested by Rockach and Brock (1997) was episodic versus chronic loneliness. According to these researchers by this time there was growing evidence that the experience of loneliness can lie on a continuum between individuals who tend to experience loneliness on a chronic basis to those who experience loneliness on an episodic level. At this time, chronic loneliness was seen as part of one’s personality, whereas episodic loneliness was event driven and was experienced by most of the population regardless of personality. The personality view of loneliness has since changed, as loneliness has been seen more as a natural driving force. Current researchers are finding evidence of more of a drive model analogous to food, where some people feel the need to consume more food than do other individuals, there are some individuals who have the need to find continued reductions in loneliness whereas others need minimal social and emotional contact to be satisfied (Lieberman, 2013).
Of interest in Rockach and Brock’s (1997) research was their focus on whether someone was currently experiencing loneliness, or if they were recalling past experiences of loneliness. Consistent with previous population rate research both in the 1990s (Lunt, 1991) and current (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008), which suggests at any given time, about 25% of the population is experiencing loneliness, Rockach and Brock’s sample consisted of 30% slightly but not significantly above the population rate. According to their findings, the weight in which individuals who are currently experiencing loneliness significantly differ from individuals who were recalling episodes of loneliness in their past. Current lonely individuals weighted higher on social alienation, growth and discovery, and self-depreciation. With self-depreciation, the most salient aspects were social inadequacy and self-alienation, whereas individuals recalling episodes of loneliness weighted more heavily on emotional distress.
The most significant parts of the 1990s that contributed to the knowledge base on loneliness was the systematic investigations of the features of loneliness, represented in this review by the work of Lunt (1991) and Rockach and Brock (1997). The last article that will be reviewed before moving on to more contemporary issues are that of Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) on emotions. It should be noted that John Cacioppo has become one of the leading research experts in the field of loneliness and currently the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago where he has a robust research lab dedicated to the investigation of loneliness. One of the earlier works of Cacioppo, which included his colleague Wendi Gardner, was in 1999 in an article on emotions that emphasized three topics that would influence the study of emotions and loneliness (1) methodological issues, (2) relationship between emotions and cognition, and (3) the affective system which underlie emotions.
Methodological issues that were raised by Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) was for on advocating for the increased integration between the use of standardized measurements and neurological investigation tools such as fMRI imaging techniques. As will be seen in the last couple sections of this historical review, the last ten years has seen a robust increase and interest in the neurological processes associated with loneliness. By this time these authors’ argued that there had been developed several ways to measure emotions (i.e. self-report, indirect measures, and non-verbal measures) and that the field should continue the use and development of these tools. However, despite their advocacy for more lab-based studies, they also stated the field needs to address the ecological validity of the studies of emotions. In the context of loneliness, this call for more ecological validity will be seen in many of the contemporary studies that will be reviewed that investigates how loneliness is experienced within one’s community (Smith, 2012). Additionally, Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) argued that increased attention needed to be placed on socioemotional developmental aspects of loneliness. Again as will be indicated in the next section on contemporary issues, emphasis has been placed on socio-developmental processes of loneliness through childhood (Jones, Schinka, Van Dulman, Bossarte, & Swahn, 2011) to adulthood (Fokkema, Gierveld, & Dykstra, 2012).
The second area that Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) addressed was the relationship between cognition and emotions. They noted that that relationship between an individual’s emotion and an individual’s cognition (rationality) have been seen since the Greek philosopher times as an adversarial one with emotions being seen as blinding a person’s rational senses and abilities. However, as noted by Cacioppo and Gardner “[a]lthough the obstacles of a civilized world still occasionally call forth blind rage, emotions are increasingly recognized for the constructive role they play in higher forms of human experience” (p. 194). In other words, Cacioppo and Gardner argue that emotions have a key role in signaling that something must change and providing motivation to enact change, in a rational manner. Indeed, loneliness today is seen not as a self-defeating emotional process, but rather a negative emotional state that motivates the individual to seek out social connection in order to alleviate. While this may not be the case for some individuals who experience loneliness who try to alleviate it through dysfunctional means such as alcohol consumption, promiscuous sexual activity, or further social withdrawal leading to more loneliness and potential development of depressive symptoms, the majority of individuals’ loneliness leads to seeking out social and emotional connection with others (Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010).
In Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) paper they state “evolutionary forces do not value knowledge or truth per se but species survival” (p.198) and they go on to state when explaining the differentiation between hostile and threatening stimuli that “the human brain and body have been shaped by natural selection to perform this affective categorization and respond accordingly” (p.198). In the previous paragraph it was noted that emotional signals can aid in cognitive appraisal and increase the ability to make immediate and rational decisions. However, as can be seen by the statements just made, it is important not to overlook the evolutionary processes that underlie the affective system. This is the third point that Cacioppo and Gardner made in trying to understand and investigate emotions. There are two issues to the affective system that must be discussed in understanding the affective response of the individual, first is the learning process, in which affective experienced are shaped the classical conditioning and operant conditioning processes. The second is the understanding that emotions seem to have a two channel system one aimed at identifying and responding to threats and the other identifying and responding to safety and appetitive needs. When it comes to loneliness the threat channel may explain why individuals become more hypervigilant and weary of other’s intentions when feeling lonely (Lodder, Scholte, Clemens, Engels, Goosens, & Verhagen, 2015), whereas the safety and appetitive channel attempts to find a way to fulfill an individual social and social-emotional needs (Chang, et al., 2014). From a learning aspect, this maybe how individuals form poor habits when it comes to alleviating loneliness. For example, a person may realize that when they drink and become intoxicated they feel less threat and more social which alleviates their lonely state. Therefore, they learn that their loneliness can temporarily lowered through drinking. Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) article provided a framework for understanding the methodological, cognitive, affective variables that should be taken into account when studying emotions to the present day. Indeed, as will be review in the contemporary research section, researchers try to connect individuals experience of loneliness between neurological mechanism (methodology), cognitive system, and affective systems in order to understand how these systems respond to the environment and stimuli to try and understand the emotional state of loneliness.
The last evolution in the history of the study of loneliness fully developed within that last sixteen years with work from Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) in their book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”, Hawkley, and Cacioppo (2010) in their article “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms” and Cacioppo, Cacioppo, and Capitanio (2014) in their article “Towards a Neurology of Loneliness” all of which describe the neurological basis of loneliness and the associated outcomes of prolonged loneliness. Additionally, they provide a framework for understanding loneliness as a part of an evolutionary advantage through social living, providing loneliness as a key negative emotional drive to engage a person in action when they experience insufficient amounts of social connection. These issues will be further explored in the contemporary section on loneliness in this chapter.
Before moving to more contemporary research two issues must be explored, the first is the difference between loneliness as defined by Weiss (1973/1985) and loneliness that is experienced when one has depression. The second is the difference between the experience of loneliness and the experience of social rejection. Loneliness and depression seem to be intimately intertwined as loneliness is a feature of depression (Zimmer-Gembeck, Trevaskis, Nesdale, & Downey, 2014). However, being lonely does not necessarily means one is depressed (Cicognani, Klimstra, & Goossens, 2014).
Loneliness as a property of depression is not new, however as can be seen in this review, depression and loneliness have a long standing relationship. What seems to differ between normative loneliness (i.e. loneliness that experienced whenever there is a discrepancy in social connection) and depressive loneliness, seems to be the motivational state. That is, individuals who experience loneliness while depressed tend to withdraw from opportunities to regain social connection whereas individuals who are experiencing normative loneliness have a motivation to alleviate the negative emotions it produces through seeking out social opportunities (de Minzi, 2006). Why loneliness has a different effect when a person is depressed versus not depressed is still under investigation. Research by Segrin, Powell, Givertz, and Brackin (2003) did research on didactic couples who one or both were experiencing depression suggests that loneliness becomes part of the negative affective-cognitive rumination cycle, and therefore instead of seeking out social connection the negative emotions associated with loneliness reinforces the person’s belief, attitudes, and behaviors, including their lack of abilities to create meaningful social connections.
From Segrin, Powell, Givertz, and Brackin (2003) research one can glean processes that are present when experiencing loneliness in that it includes a negative affective state (e.g. feeling anxious), a cognitive state (e.g. appraisal of social situation), and behavioral/motivational state (e.g. seeking out social connection). From Segrin, Powell, Givertz, and Brackin (2003) research it seems that depression interrupts the motivational and behavioral process (ex. withdraw from social situations) by creating a different evaluation of the person affective state (ex. anxious because lack of relationships) and cognitive appraisal (ex. I must be anxious because I am not good at relationships).
A second distinction that needs to be made before moving on is the distinction between social rejection and loneliness. Mainly, how do these two experiences differ from one another or do they? The best evidence for the differences between social rejection and loneliness come from neurological studies using fMRI to measure different activation during tasks where individuals are lonely versus not lonely and other studies that measure brain activity when someone experiences some type of social rejection. Research of this type has indicated that different brain regions become active when experiencing rejection versus being in a lonely state. For example, research by Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams (2003) and Eisenberger (2012) had individuals experience simulated social rejection while in an fMRI machine. This activity known as “cyber ball” requires a person to pass a ball on a video screen to one of two other players. In the social rejection scenario, the two other players stop passing the ball to the participant. When measuring activation in the brain, the researchers found that more the person experience social distress (i.e. rejection) the more of the area of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) activated. Interestingly the dACC is also activated when a person experiences physical pain. However, similar research done on lonely individuals develops a different pattern. Instead, area associated with motivation (ventral striatum, caudate nucleus, and temporal gyrus) and emotions (amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus) become active under different lonely stimuli conditions (Cacioppo, Norris, Decety, Monteleone, & Nubaum, 2008; Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Capitanio, 2014).
These studies potentially highlight the difference between rejection – as pain – and loneliness – as motivational emotion, there should be some caution in interpreting such studies. First they compare different regions of the brain under different types of procedures and activities. Second and most importantly, in the rejection condition individuals experience the state of rejection while having their brain scanned. Whereas as in the loneliness condition this is a pre-disposed state in which comparisons between individuals who scored low on a loneliness scale are compared to individuals who score high on a loneliness scale. Therefore, while these studies provide starting evidence that there is a distinction between rejection and loneliness, there is much more work that needs to be done in this area. Additionally, independent replications of Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams (2003) and Eisenberger (2012) work have failed (Cacioppo, et al. 2013). This indicates that while there may be a differentiation between social rejection and loneliness based on neural pathways, much more work needs to be done to identify exactly what the differences are and how they manifest themselves in the neural system.
By: Curtis Peterson ©
I have been asked a lot lately why I think a person’s social identity would reduce a person’s experience of loneliness. So I have decided instead of retyping the same thing over and over I would just provide a link to the theoretical framework of identity and loneliness that I have developed over the past few years.
In this section the theoretical basis for the hypothesis that saliency of social identity may reduce an individual’s current subjective experience of loneliness will be explored. Figure 1 represented the combination of four formalized theories that together explain the theoretical relationship between social identification and loneliness (figure 1. Proposed model of loneliness reduction through social identification).
Based on the theories that will be presented after Figure 1, the theoretical model is based on the assumption that emotions occur through the cognitive appraisal of a person’s current situation, this is represented in the first three boxes of figure 1, starting from left to right. Under situation, one will note that saliency of one’s social identity is important in this model, as it will be argued that saliency of one’s identity is important in the evaluation of one’s situation and determines one’s evaluation of loneliness. Additionally, two other factors have a role in the appraisal process, (1) past emotional memories, and (2) social categorization and social identification. Both of these factors are used by the individual to determine whether the current situation is one that is potentially harmful to the individual (part emotional memories) and the importance of the saliency of the person’s social identity (social categorization and social identification). Based on these initial appraisal of the situation, emotional memories, and identity, the person will evaluate the situation as either they belong or they are lonely in the given situation.
An example of how this process may work in the real world is a student who identifies with be a college student at a given college – let us call this ABC University. In a given evaluative situation, for example, being home during the summer away from school mates and the ABC University environment. The individual may evaluate this situation as lacking in strong social connection and identity, and therefore, may evaluate their situation as lonely and experience the desire to return from summer break early, the alleviate the state of loneliness. Once the student returns to ABC University and the situation makes their identity as ABC University student salient again, and the shared bond (categorization) and similar connection (emotional belonging), the individual experiences an increase in belonging and a reduced feeling of loneliness.
The need to belong.
To understand the interplay between loneliness and social settings it important to start with a meta-theory of the need to belong (Fiske, 2013; Lieberman, 2013; Cacioppo, & Patrick, 2008). Lieberman (2013) who studies the neurological basis of social behavior and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) who studies the neurological basis of loneliness both agree that the human brain has largely evolved to meet the social demands of humans. Lieberman (2013) extends this to the notion of evolution, stating that if evolution had a purpose and a consciousness it made a bet on the social aspects of the human brain rather than the individual survival skills of the human brain to assure it continued survival. Indeed, both Lieberman (2013); and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008), provide significant evidence that the higher evolved areas of the brain are used in the processing of social information rather than non-social information. Lieberman (2013) even provides compelling evidence that when individuals stop engaging in non-social actions the brain immediately reverts to the activation of the social areas of the brain without conscious knowledge or effort. Based on this neurological evidence, it has lead these researchers to theorize that one of the most basic needs of human beings is to create and maintain social connections.
While Lieberman (2013) and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) developed a neurological basis for social belonging, Fiske (2013) develop a social cognitive needs model which places the need for belonging as an overarching motivation to four other cognitive and affective cognitive reasons for creating and maintaining social connections. In one’s motivation to belong Fiske (2013) theorizes that there are two relatively cognitive needs and motives, and two relatively affective needs and motives. The cognitive needs include the need for understanding and the need for control. The need to understanding is the need to have shared experiences that makes both the social and non-social world predictable. The second cognitive need is the need and motivation for control as defined as being able to have some control between behavior and the outcome of behavior. Again this can arise through shared meaning, storytelling, and knowing the experiences of others. Indeed, one can argue that while there are self-enhancements that drive this proposal and dissertation, the other social meaning is to provide a shared meaning of social identification and loneliness, and to provide a potential control between one’s behavior resulting from experience of loneliness and the potential positive outcomes through engaging in the social identification process. However, if the results of this proposal are not supported it also has shared understanding and control as well. Fiske (2013) also argued that there are two relatively affective needs and motives that are driven by the belonging process. The first is the need for self-enhancement, this is the basic need to be able to see one’s self as basically worthy and improvable. It can be argued that this can only occur within a social context either through direct social feedbacks or by comparing one’s self to some social norm. The second affective need is the need for trust which is defined by Fiske (2013) as seeing others as basically benign. Lieberman (2013) argued that the reason the human brain evolved in a large part to meet their social world is because it was an evolutionary advantage for human being to live in groups and work as a coherent unit. This social system also requires seeing individuals within that social system as relatively benign and safe. Therefore, Fiske (2013) felt this was an important aspect of one of the sub-categories of the need to belong, as she argues the more benign others are within a group, the more open and creative; and less closed and apprehensive.
Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) theorize that loneliness is a mechanism by which a person comes to understand that their need to belong or social connection is not being fulfilled. This will be discussed in the next section titled “Thwarted belonging leading to loneliness”. However, to summarize this section, the need to belong is considered a basic human need and can be explained by neurological evidence (Lieberman, 2013), and social cognitive evidence (Fiske, 2013). In the overall model presented in figure one the need for belonging would be evaluated in the appraisal of the situation for which the individual is attending. This appraisal can result in a thwarting of any five of Fiske’s cognitive needs leading to the negative emotional state of loneliness.
Thwarted belonging leading to loneliness.
As will be presented on the literature review on loneliness, the study of the topic has a long and rich history. What seems to be clear from this collection of data is that loneliness is a negative emotional state that motivates an individual to fulfill their needing for social connection and belonging (Ayalon, Shiovitz-Ezra, & Roziner, 2016). There are two types of loneliness that individuals experience best explained by Weiss (1973/1985) who theorized that individuals can experience two types of loneliness one emotional and the other social. Emotional loneliness is defined as a person’s subjective evaluation that they do not have sufficient emotionally close relationships. It can be argued under Fiske (2013) model that individuals need close emotional relationships to enhance their self-enhancement through honest feedback and encouragement. One could also argue emotional relationships are necessary to have a sufficient amount of trust, in a complex social world in which not everyone can be trusted.
The second form of loneliness described by Weiss (1973/1985) is social loneliness, also known in the literature as social isolation. Social loneliness is the appraisal that one does not have sufficient social connections. Not having sufficient social connections can thwart Fiske’s (2013) need for understanding and control, by not having sufficient information through social connection to make one’s world predictable and to have some sense of control. While the majority of Cacioppo’s work on loneliness has specifically dealt with social loneliness in relation to neurological process and health and mental health outcomes, he concedes that when social-emotional needs are not met this thwarts an individual’s confidence and abilities to create and develop meaningful social connections leading to the experience of chronic loneliness (Cacioppo, Christakis, & Fowler, 2009). The clear separation for emotional loneliness and social loneliness comes from evidence that individuals may still experience loneliness despite having several social connections, and when this has been investigated the main conclusion is that for these individuals while they may have a large social network, they lack any real meaningful emotionally close relationships (Grageset, Eide, Kirkevold, & Ramhoff, 2012). While as will be indicated later in this proposal loneliness can lead to some rather anti-social and self-defeating behaviors such as isolation (Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010), drinking (Chen, & Feeley, 2015), hypervigilance and inability to trust (Lodder, Scholte, Clemens, Engels, Goosens, & Verhagen, 2015), focusing on non-social objects (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008), and becoming more non-conforming, loneliness is largely seen as a negative emotional motivational model rather than a self-defeating model. Indeed, for the majority of individuals the experience of loneliness leads to increase social and emotional connections with others, satisfying and individuals need for belonging. As can be indicated in Figure 1, emotional and social loneliness are seen as outcomes of the evaluative process after a person has determined that they are not meeting their belonging needs. Loneliness is represented in the manner to emphasize that this emotional experience then leads to proceeding behaviors such as socialization or regaining emotional connections. Before moving on to the proposed mechanisms that may reduce loneliness (social identity) it is worth pausing for a moment and taking a look at the theoretical models of emotions, as loneliness is considered as an emotional state.
Emotional basis of loneliness.
Loneliness can be considered as fitting within two groups of emotions, the first is personal emotions where one has an individual experience of loneliness which aspects of this experience of loneliness are best explained by theories of emotions presented by Cacioppo and Gardner (1999). The second is loneliness can be experienced as a social and group emotion and be driven through social and group processes which is best explained by the group based emotion theory of Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016). A full evaluation of Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) theory is provided in the section on loneliness while a full evaluation of Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) is provided in the section on social identity. The purpose here is to provide the theoretical underpinnings of each of these theories as they relate to the experience of emotions.
To begin the exploration of emotions it should begin with some basic ideas of emotions presented by Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) who provide evidence that the majority of research on emotions indicates that it is a situationally bound experienced based on an appraisal process of what elements of a situation are being attended to and how they are appraised based on the individual’s identity and experience with the situation. The idea and notion of emotions being situationally bound and go through an appraisal processes emphasizes a short fall in both the research on emotions and the personal experiences of emotions, in that, according to Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), emotions are well understood as they are experienced. This may explain why at times individuals may try to alleviate emotions through more destructive means rather than in a manner consistent with what the emotion means to the individual. Lastly, Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), point out that in research, that compares group emotions versus personal emotions, has largely concluded that they are not experienced qualitatively different. Meaning that emotional states as experienced by the individual versus group emotions experienced by a group, do not differ in any significant way. This according to Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren, and Gross (2016) indicates that social identity and social evaluation should be taken into consideration in the evaluation of emotional states. Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) theory and ideas of emotions are explored more deeply starting on page 106 and represented on Figure 2 on page 109. For this section on building a theoretical framework Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) ideas can be represented in the situation, attention, and appraisal aspects of Figure 1, in that their theory supports the appraisal process of emotions based on the current situation.
The second theory of emotions used for the development of this theoretical framework come from Cacioppo and Gardner (1999). Like Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) theorized that emotions, while not always rationally based have cognitive evaluative processes by which a person may determine the meaning and purpose of a given emotional state. Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) theorized that emotions have both a safety and appetitive pathway or what they called channels. The safety channel are emotions that signal either the need to gain safety or that the organism is in a safe situation. In figure 1, this is represented through the appraisal of past emotional memories, which provides information on whether the situation is safe. The appetitive channel (also called hedonic needs by Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross, 2016) are needs that satisfy the basic needs of the organism but also the pleasure needs of the organism. In the context of loneliness and the belonging model of Fiske (2013), safety needs (fulfilled through trust, understanding, and control) when thwarted can lead to the negative emotional state of loneliness signaling to the organism that these basic needs are not being fulfilled. Appetitive needs under Fiske (2013) may include self-enhancement needs when not being satisfied may lead to the experience of loneliness. In addition to this emphasis on cognitive process, Cacioppo and Gardner (1999), also placed emphasis on socio-emotional development as an important understanding of not only how one will experience an emotion but understand and cope with it as well. The emphasis of socio-emotional development is represented as past emotional memories in Figure 1 to emphasize that individual’s experience with emotions and their already developed personal theories about emotions has significant implications of how one will evaluate the current situation and therefore the proceeding emotional state. One question that this proposal is trying to determine, is if emotional states – such as loneliness – are situationally bound, then there must at least theoretically, be a way to change situational variables that can lead to a changing evaluation of the situation and therefore the experience of the given emotion. This proposal theorizes that a potential situational variable is the saliency of one’s social identity. The next section will provide a theoretical overview of social identity theory.
Social identity theory and social categorization theory.
This research builds on the research conducted on Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Social Categorization Theory (SCT) research findings, which was originally formulated by Tajfel and Turner in 1982. According to SIT individuals seek groups which have similar attributes that they have. This leads to group affiliation and the development of a social identity based on the qualities of that group (Turner, 1982). Once individuals start to develop a social identity in order to protect that identity he or she will categorize individuals into either in-groups or out-groups as described by SCT (Abrams, 2014). Like one’s personal identity, individuals like to think of themselves as good people, in general, therefore they will implement protective mechanisms to enhance their social identity and have their social identity protected (Carter, 2013). Accordingly, most research on SIT has focused on how individuals protect their social identity through engaging in prejudice and discrimination towards out-groups (Kumar, Seay, & Karabenick, 2011). However, recent research has focused on the positive aspects of social identity, for example Haslam (2014) provided evidence that a sense of social identity among medical doctor residency students can enhance their educational experience through developing a sense of identity as a doctor. Haslam (2014) also argues that social identity is becoming such a key variable in individual’s social and personal experiences that both mental health and physical health practitioners should not deny the importance one’s social identity has and should work to enhance their social identity for the welfare of their clients and patients.
Specific to this research, the original assumption of SIT is that individuals seek out a social identity in order to enhance their self-esteem (Turner, 1982). However, research on this self-esteem hypothesis has been inconsistent and generally does not support this view (Abrams, 2014). This has lead Abrams (2014) to believe that there are probably multiple mechanisms which motivates an individual to engage in social identification. The argument of this proposal is the experience of loneliness maybe on motivating factor for one to engage in social identification. More importantly, is that social identity maybe a protective factor in reducing not only the evaluative phase of loneliness but also the experience of loneliness. This is represented in Figure 1, part of the evaluation process, and allows the individual to interpret the situation as one in which they belong both emotionally and socially. If this assumption is correct, it will indicate that social identity does indeed have a key role in an individual’s experience of loneliness. As will be shown in later sections in this chapter social identities provide the opportunity for social belonging and the development of emotional bonds based on similar attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. This emotional bond and the feeling of social belonging may provide relief of the emotional pains of loneliness. Additionally, the saliency of which can be placed in any situation in which maybe lonely evoking for individuals, subsequently reducing the chance that individual will experience loneliness. Emphasis on the saliency of one’s social identity is important, because research on social identity finds that unless one’s identity is made salient within the situation, it has little influence affective and behavioral outcomes (Carter, 2013). With this theoretical model in mind, focus will now turn to research that is relevant to understanding loneliness and social identity both from a historical standpoint and a contemporary view.
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