Evolutionarily speaking, the feelings we hate the most are good for us.
Take fear. Fear sucks, right? But fear also biochemically gets your body ready to fight or flee, and from a survival standpoint, that’s a good thing.
Then there is loneliness.
I’ve been lonely a lot lately. I mean, an awful lot.
This isn’t because I don’t have people in my life. I do. I am blessed with a wonderful wife and wonderful children, and there are a bunch of people who, I believe, appreciate that I exist. I coach their kids in baseball. I coach with them in baseball. We play poker together once a month. I organize their fantasy baseball and/or football leagues. We play Dungeons & Dragons together.
What I don’t have, though, is a whole lot of connection.
Having connection is a whole lot different from having people. It’s the difference between having a friend and having an acquaintance. I have a bunch of the latter, and I’m grateful for each and every one of them. I don’t think I really have many of the former.
Sure, there are people who might consider me a friend. Some might actually be a friend, though just about all of them live well more than a “let’s meet up for lunch today” away. The truth? There isn’t anyone in my life right now outside of the people with whom I share my home who really has cared enough to get to know me. This isn’t said as an indictment against them. Maybe it’s more of an indictment against me. I’m game for that discussion.
Loneliness sucks. When my wife and boys are doing something else that doesn’t involve me, there’s not a person in my local world whom I can call and say, “I’m free! Let’s go hang out.” Well, that’s not precisely true. There are people with whom I can do that. What I should say is that there’s not a person in my local world who has responded favorably to me asking, and there’s not a person in my local world who has done the asking himself or herself.
That leads to loneliness. Deep, heartfelt, painful loneliness.
It’s not that I can’t entertainment myself, and it’s not that I don’t enjoy solitude. If given the choice between a loud, busy party and solitude, well, me and my book are just fine, thank you. Rather, it’s that I lack connection, and I miss that. A lot.
Evolutionarily speaking, loneliness is a good thing, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But biologically, it’s far from good. Research shows loneliness isn’t good for our health. Chronic loneliness is associated with accelerated aging, a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia. One report says it’s as harmful as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
Loneliness, though, is like hunger and thirst. No one likes to feel hungry or thirsty. But these uncomfortable feelings serve as drives for us to do the things necessary to keep us alive — eat and drink. Loneliness is much the same.
At one point in our evolutionary history, it helped keep us alive. The sting of rejection helped us conform to social norms so we would have a better chance of survival. Conformity isn’t all bad. One person in a primitive world is much more likely to perish than a group of 100 or 200.
We don’t technically need this mechanism anymore to survive. We are no longer gatherers or hunters who rely on our community for the very basics. Yet loneliness remains just as painful and, according to the research, similarly dangerous. Our nervous system and the chemicals on which it operates are fundamentally unchanged from when we lived in small, tight-knit groups for our entire lives.
So yes, technically, it’s good to feel loneliness, just as it’s good to feel hunger or thirst. The problem is that most people living in the United States can easily find food and water, while finding true connection seems to be getting more and more difficult.
And herein lies the irony. More and more people are suffering from the exact same thing — alone. More and more of us are feeling, “If only someone would truly care,” when those someones are all around them feeling the exact same thing.
Loneliness carries a stigma. Think of the kid who sat alone in the lunchroom in school. There’s a shame to being alone, whether it’s by choice or not. This culture’s norms are set by extroverts, and that leaves those who feel lonely believing they have a personal deficit or character flaw. I know I do. I can’t tell you how many times over the past year I’ve asked myself or my wife, “What is wrong with me that no one cares to get to know me, to connect with me?”
Perhaps, though, loneliness isn’t a result of anyone’s individual shortcomings. Perhaps it’s a symptom of a poorly evolving society in which the trend is toward smaller families, remote work, digitized and scattered social networks, no-contact home delivery and reduced engagement in shared activities. Perhaps these are the things that are not only leading to loneliness but are, in fact, pulling our communities apart.
Perhaps, then, what the lonely are feeling is not a personal failing but rather a big billboard saying, “Danger! Turn Back!” and instead of heeding that warning, we have our heads down — buried in our phones, perhaps — and are completely missing it.
Perhaps, then, the lonely have the answer.