Or blame an increasingly self-absorbed society, as John Cacioppo does. Prof. Cacioppo, the leading authority on the health effects of loneliness, is director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “One of the things we’ve seen is a movement away from a concern for others,” he says in a phone interview. “Economics basically says you should be concerned about your own short-term interests. There’s more division in society, more segmentation; there’s less identity with a national or global persona, but rather on the family or the individual. People aren’t as loyal to their employers, and employers are certainly not as loyal to their workers.”
Loneliness, it turns out, is as bad for your health as smoking, or being obese. The research that Prof. Cacioppo has done with colleagues also adds to the growing body of work that shows how bad loneliness can be for your health. It shows that loneliness suppresses the immune system and cardiovascular function, and increases the amount of stress hormone the body produces. It causes wear and tear on a cellular level, and impairs sleep. As he writes in his book Loneliness, “these changes in physiology are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave.”
His theory, simply, is that we are social animals who function most successfully in a collective; the physical pain and degradation caused by loneliness are a kind of early-warning signal of a failure to connect, the way the pain of a cut finger tells you to fetch a Band-Aid.
A study last year from the University of California at San Francisco showed a clear link between loneliness and serious heart problems and early death in the elderly. Seniors in the study who identified themselves as lonely had a 59-per-cent greater chance of health problems, and a 45-per-cent greater chance of early death.
Carla Perissinotto, the doctor who led the study, said she once encountered an elderly patient in a hospital emergency ward who seemed to have nothing wrong with her. She soon realized the woman was so lonely that she just wanted someone to talk to.
Older people come to mind first when we think about loneliness. As a 78-year-old woman living alone in a small Ontario city puts it, “I feel like everything is behind me, and that there’s nothing to look forward to.”
About 20 per cent of older people in this country report feeling lonely, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report. But that’s not the whole picture, because a sense of isolation doesn’t arrive with grey hair: In a study of 34,000 Canadian university students, almost two-thirds reported feeling “very lonely” in the past 12 months. More Canadians are living alone than at any other point in history, and half again as many of them (21 per cent) are more likely to report feeling lonely than those who are part of a couple (14 per cent).
Being alone is not the same as being lonely, of course. Plenty of people are happy to sit in their studies, play World of Warcraft and not see another human being for days. The problem arises when the lonely become incapacitated by their situation, losing all sense of how to reconnect, and withdraw even further in a wearying circle. The holiday season, which comes wreathed in idealized depictions of cheery families, is particularly dreaded.
In some cases, isolation is taken to gothic extremes. In Britain, a young woman named Joyce Carol Vincent died and wasn’t discovered for three years. Neighbours ignored the strange smell coming from in her apartment and, when her body was finally found, the TV was still on. She became the subject of morbid fascination, and a documentary.
This month, the story of Harold Percival, a British veteran of the Second World War, caused a brief sensation. When he died alone in a nursing home at 99, a Twitter campaign drew hundreds to his funeral. More than a few observers wondered whether the mourners might have been better employed visiting Mr. Percival while he was still alive.
Does the wired world make us feel even more cut off?
Proponents and detractors of social media can cherry-pick from studies showing that technology makes people feel either more connected, or more isolated. But one this summer from the University of Michigan analyzed subjects’ responses to a variety of texted questions during the day, and showed that using Facebook increased feelings of loneliness and alienation: “On the surface,” the researchers wrote, “Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”