One day in 2013, I phoned a professor at the University of Chicago to talk about loneliness. John Cacioppo, head of the school’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, was a pioneer in the study of the damaging health effects of loneliness, which he and other neuroscientists determined could be life-shortening in extreme cases. He was, as you can imagine, an extremely busy dude.
Prof. Cacioppo eventually got back to me and told me he could squeeze in a quick early-morning interview. When we finally connected, his generosity and passion for the subject kept us talking for a good half-hour: He walked me through the way loneliness can increase levels of stress hormones in an individual and how an increasingly individualistic society was fraying social connections. “One of the things we’ve seen is a movement away from a concern for others,” he said. “Economics basically says you should be concerned about your own short-term interests.”
That conversation and that generosity have stuck with me over the years. I was shocked to read last month that Prof. Cacioppo had died at the age of 66. He left behind a groundbreaking body of work including the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. He told another interviewer that he became acutely aware of the stigma attached to isolation when reading his own book in public, with the giant screaming word “Loneliness” on the cover. He considered taking the cover off or turning it upside-down.
In the past five years, the attention paid to loneliness as a public-health issue has only increased. The Conservative government in Britain appointed a minister for loneliness after a decade of shredding the social safety net, which is a bit like the fairy-tale witch giving a lollipop to kids in the oven as she bakes them. The Dutch government announced this month that it is investing €26-million ($40.8-million) to combat loneliness among the elderly.
In Canada, a widely quoted figure reveals that 1.4 million elderly people experience feelings of loneliness. At the other end of life, 66 per cent of Canadian university students admitted to feeling isolated in the previous year. More of us are living alone than at any point in our country’s history (although this can, of course, be a blessing: Living with someone does not preclude loneliness, as anyone in a bad marriage can tell you).
And yet, where does this pain present itself? Not on the pages of Instagram, the land of endless vacations and cocktails that magically refill themselves. Nor on Facebook, the digital wedding and baby registry, where designer couples are joined at the lips and require a surgeon to separate them. We all know that social media require a Maggie Smith level of performance and that we are rarely shown the mess backstage, but that doesn’t make it hurt less when the performance seems so flawless.
And this is what makes the Loneliness Project so refreshing: It’s like Facebook if Facebook woke up at 4 a.m. wondering what the hell it all means or Instagram was forced to shed its happiness filters. The Loneliness Project is simply a web site, a place to record those middle-of-the-night thoughts, which for many people occur at all hours of the day, often in the presence of co-workers or family. Reading through the stories, which come from seniors and teenagers, singles and married people, you realize there is no “right” way to feel lonely, and the only thing common to their experience is how common it is.
One young man talks about wandering through IKEA on his own, because he has no one to share the day with: “I ate two hot dogs and bought nothing.” People write about having no one to sit with at lunch, or accompany them to surgery, or wait at the finish line of a marathon. Others are surrounded by people, but feel unmoored. Loneliness, someone writes, is “a feeling of not being understood, a sense of worthlessness.” Not surprisingly, the contributors are anonymous, identified by first name or not at all. There are no carefully edited profile pictures.
The Loneliness Project is the brainchild of Toronto graphic designer Marissa Korda, who began collecting the stories last year (she now has more than 1,400 entries from 60 countries). It was a way, she says, of expressing empathy and finding connection in the world. “Loneliness is a normal part of being human, yet there’s so much stigma around it that can make it very hard to talk about. When we read and share stories, we not only have a better understanding of other people, but how our own stories fit into a wider human context. I want to bring loneliness in the open and start a conversation around it.”
This stigma leads can lead to a self-defeating cycle: Our brains, longing for social contact but thrown into self-preservation mode by perceived rejection, put up defences that make connection even harder. It’s a situation heartbreakingly encapsulated by an 18-year-old student on the Loneliness Project, who finds himself ignored by his roommate. He writes, “Loneliness is a bubble around me that’s constantly pushing out bad vibes to make sure it’s never cured.”
For Prof. Cacioppo, the stigma wasn’t just unfortunate, it was misplaced. He suggested that we think of loneliness not as a failing, but as a biological signal, in the same way hunger tells us to eat or thirst makes us head for water. Loneliness is a sign that the brain craves contact with the rest of the herd. Unfortunately, that signal can turn into a shrieking alarm for a chronically lonely person, drowning out the overtures of friendship that might be happening all around.
Prof. Cacioppo suggested loneliness could be relieved by recognizing the signal, and acknowledging it, and seeking some kind of meaningful contact that wasn’t threatening – volunteering somewhere welcoming, for instance. It’s not easy. It was probably never easy, but harder now, with the illusion of connection reflected at us from every surface.