Human beings evolved to live in groups. We need the support and cooperation of other humans to survive, because left to face a dangerous world on our own, we would have soon perished. This is why, even in the modern world, with all its comforts and conveniences, we start to feel lonely when deprived of the company of others. We become more focused on ourselves as we try to work out what has gone wrong. This compounds the problem because being self-absorbed intensifies feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Researchers from the University of Chicago, led by Professor John Cacioppo, have proved that loneliness and self-centredness form a vicious circle that can be difficult to break. The more self-centred you become, the more you risk becoming locked into feelings of social isolation.
The findings are the result of an analysis of data taken from 229 people aged 50 to 68 over 11 years as part of the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study.
Early research treated loneliness as a temporary feeling of distress that had no adaptive purpose, but this is not the case. As early as 2006, the researchers suggested that evolution has shaped the brain to incline humans toward certain emotions, thoughts and behaviour. Their new finding – that loneliness tends to increase self-centeredness – fits this evolutionary interpretation.
From an evolutionary-biological viewpoint, people have to be concerned with their own interests. But the pressures of modern society are significantly different from those that existed when loneliness evolved in the human species. We have evolved to become such a powerful species, mainly as a result of mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that facilitated our ability to adapt in social interactions.
When we don’t have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare and we become more self-centred. Particularly in larger communities, for example in large cities, loneliness is on the rise.
A report by charities Relate and Relationships Scotland surveyed 5,000 people in the UK and the results were revealing.
More than one in eight adults say they do not have a close friend.
45% of UK adults felt lonely at least some of the time and18% felt lonely often or all of the time.
17% said they either never or rarely felt loved.
83% of people in the UK enjoyed good relationships with their friends.
18% of people said they had two or three close friends.
In modern society, becoming more self-centred provides protection from becoming lonely… but only in the short term – not in the long term. This is because the harmful effects of loneliness build up over time and the cumulative effect is to adversely affect a person’s health and wellbeing.
In contemporary society it is harder for people to banish feelings of loneliness. It’s a fact that humans are at their best when they provide mutual aid and protection.
It’s not that one individual makes sacrifices for another, it’s that working together they do more than the sum of their parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and makes lonely individuals concentrate on their own interests at the expense of others.
Lonely people have been shown to be more susceptible to a variety of physical and mental health problems, so understanding loneliness and its causes means we could develop better therapies to deal with it.
I have always supported the idea that the cure for loneliness and depression is to get individuals back into society, if only for the reason it has been shown to work time and again.
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Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.