Loneliness: A State of Mind, or What?

Various studies are suggesting that loneliness is a growing problem, and can be just as bad for your physical health as obesity (if not worse.)

Loneliness [according to research reported at theguardian.com 2/17/14] has dramatic consequences on health. Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, lower immunity, increase depression, lower overall subjective well-being and increase the stress hormone cortisol (at sustained high levels, cortisol gradually wears your body down).

Some are going so far as to label loneliness a disease, no different from heart disease or cancer.

Is it loneliness itself that impairs or even kills people? Or is it one’s ideas, beliefs, cognitions, silent premises and feelings that create the problem? Is loneliness literally a disease, suggesting a biological cause (such as low immunity or high cortisol)? Or is it more of a malaise, or a syndrome — something which is the culmination of a long series of mistaken choices and thought patterns now coming to a climax in the form of a chronic state of loneliness?

I’d love to see research tackle the issue from this point-of-view, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. If it did, we could get a more in-depth understanding of loneliness than simply writing it off as a disease requiring more funding from the government, more questionably effective self-help groups and vague psychotherapies, etc. — the usual claimed solutions.

I have found that loneliness is a state of mind. It reflects facts of objective reality, but also has a lot to do with how people view things, often mistakenly.

Some people feel chronically lonely because of their false beliefs or attitudes. For example, they think (or feel), “I’m not worthwhile unless others like me.” When others want to interact with them, they take this as a validation of their worth; when their social calendar is suddenly empty, they take this an indication that they’re no longer worthwhile.

In other words, their definition of  “worthwhile” is completely external and at the mercy of other people (who might or might not be judging them by rationally defensible standards; who might or might not be judging them at all.) Loneliness is the name they describe as their emotional state when their literal or metaphorical social calendar happens to be clear. In another week or month it might fill up again, and then the loneliness issue disappears.

Another false belief is, “I can’t be happy unless I have other people in my life.” Actually, this isn’t exactly true. People do need interpersonal satisfaction and gratification to thrive, and even survive. But it’s certain kinds of people you need and want. You do not need people who are toxic, self-destructive, or who seek to put you down as a way to reduce their anxiety / make them feel better about themselves. You do need healthy and decent people, individuals who share your interests and priorities, enough to make for a compatible friendship (or any other kind of alliance, including romantic.)

If you falsely believe or feel that you must have friends for the sake of being around other people, you’ll tend to be indiscriminate in your choice of friends and lovers. Or, you might make a mistaken assessment about someone, initially thinking they’re nice or right for you, and later recognizing they are not — and refusing to move on, or correct your error. Or, maybe the person changes, or perhaps your own needs, values and priorities change.

Some of the loneliest people you will find are those who do have friends, or actually are married with families. And people with few friends are sometimes not as lonely as you think. Things are not always as they appear, because there’s more to loneliness than meets the eye. People who falsely believe, “As long as I’m with someone else, I’m not lonely,” learn there’s more to personal connection when they find themselves married, or with friends, and yet still often lonely.

Lonely people, in my experience, typically think and feel things like, “Nobody wants me. I’m all alone.” What they’re not asking themselves are questions like, “What’s wrong with other people who don’t appreciate what I have to offer? There have got to be some people out there who value the things I do.” Or, “What am I possibly doing wrong to not get myself out there to encounter the right kind of people?”

The challenge isn’t so much to find people who like you as to find your kind of people.

The challenge in life is to know what you want, and why, and then continuously go after it — and by all means keep it (i.e. foster, nurture, treasure it) once you have it. I’m talking here about personal connections more than anything else.

If you’re true to yourself in this way, in a sustained and consistent way, then loneliness is not the metaphysical and deeply psychological problem so many claim it to be. It’s really more a matter of simply finding your own kind of people. And you don’t need hundreds or thousands of them, either.


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