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Home » All, Home and Family, Relationships, Self regulation

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: The Health Benefits of Social Connections

By on November 5, 2010 – 10:50 am  14 Comments

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn & Flourish LLC, is a leader in the field of positive education. An education management consultant and coach, workshop facilitator and author, Sherri uses the POS-EDGE Model to incorporate research-based findings from strengths psychology and behavioral economics into positive, personalized, best-practice strategies for learning, parenting, and work. Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.



Missing Him

Missing Him

Would you knowingly engage in behaviors that you know would lead to a cascade of negative health events? After her husband died, Shirley regularly declined invitations to go places with friends by saying, “Oh, my husband really wouldn’t want me to be going out at night,” or “I really need to watch golf on TV this afternoon, because my husband enjoyed it so much.”

Before long she had a regular catalog of excuses (nearly all of which were tied to an explanation which included her husband) for avoiding social calls. Not surprisingly, people stopped inviting her to socialize with them. These well-meaning people thought they were giving Shirley “space” to grieve and sent her cards and pictures rather than making phone calls and sending invitations.

Situational Loneliness Can Become Chronic Loneliness

Shirley continued to talk about her friends as if she were seeing them regularly, and while pointing to their pictures displayed on the refrigerator, she made excuses on their behalf about how busy they were with work and family responsibilities. She left the television on day and night and fell asleep on the sofa only to awaken in the middle of the night never having made it to bed. Shirley clearly understood and valued the importance of being deeply socially connected, but when her own children invited her to visit for holidays or family events, her excuses soon expanded to include many things she said she would never do again– fly, take the train, or drive beyond her own town. If they really wanted to see her, Shirley said, the children and their families could come to her house. After all, she reminded them—that is what their father would have wanted—the whole family together.

Breaking Down the Scaffold that Supports You

Scaffolding

Scaffolds supporting Construction

Feeling known and valued by others is so important to our well-being that without it we languish. A grief counselor would instantly recognize Shirley’s overwhelming loneliness. She had effectively disassociated herself from her social network. To put this into context, Shirley had lived in countries all around the world and was seen as very outgoing by others she knew at church and at her volunteering job. Perhaps her husband, when living, had been her bridge to the social world. Perhaps she missed him so much that no other social connection seemed to matter.
 

Underneath the more obvious behaviors that shrunk Shirley’s social opportunities was a more insidious decline—the loss of health benefits, what social psychologists Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo (University of Chicago) call the “scaffold for the self.”  Loneliness is not just unfortunate. It also predicts a plethora of undesirable health problems, including inattention, declining cognition, negative emotion, and poorly self-regulated behavior, that lead to illness and mortality.

The Impact of Chronic Loneliness

Loneliness

Loneliness

Chronic loneliness is bad medicine for the self. When adults move from being situationally lonely (as in early-stage grieving, such as from a death, divorce, moving, or job change) to chronically lonely, this deep social disconnection predicts all-cause mortality, even when controlling for age, gender, chronic diseases, alcohol use, smoking, self-rated general health, and pre-existing health limitations.
 

Among women, the toll of chronic loneliness is also associated with coronary heart disease and depression and a significantly higher risk for cardiovascular mortality. It increases not only the risk of Alzheimer’s disease but also faster cognitive decline among those with dementia.  In fact, the list of negative health factors correlated with loneliness is too big to list in this article.
 

The loneliness model from Cacioppo and his colleagues connects social isolation to underlying feelings of peril. In the presence of social threat, peoples’ confirmation bias shifts to the negative, and they both expect more and remember more negative social information. This loneliness loop, with its hypervigilant feelings of strong negative emotion, then activates neurochemical and psychological mechanisms that lead to the undesirable health outcomes mentioned above.
 

Consider that the lonely person who now has an impaired ability to self-regulate, unwittingly engages in what feels like self-protection. Unfortunately, like Shirley above, these behaviors result in cutting off the very nutrients that could help them feel whole again. Sleep regulation is also affected, and its disruption fuels a whole new downward spiral of social and health events.

Relieving Social Disconnection

Being a Grandmother

Being a Grandmother

What can help relieve and even prevent social disconnection?

  1. Recognize the slow slide from situational to chronic isolation. If you have a family member or friend who declines your invitations, keep the lines of communication open. Offer to drive. Even show up unexpectedly. Keep on inviting and including, even if you are turned down. Get a group of family or friends in on this, too.
     
  2. Professional help might be needed. Positive effects for relieving loneliness have been achieved with social cognitive therapy, using training to identify the automatic negative thoughts and confirmation biases that can then be discounted by alternative evidence, thus reframing one’s sense of personal control. (This is what we use in resilience training, too.)
     
  3. Connections to other people matter and they bring great joy and meaning (albeit with some frustration thrown in now and then). Keep connections alive to prevent loneliness. Warm social relationships predict so very many positive outcomes that they, too, are beyond the scope of this article.

Relying on Each Other

Relying on Each Other

 


 

References:

Cacioppo, J.T. & Patrick, W.  (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hawkley, L.C. & Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 40:218-227.

Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown. Social connectedness is one of the factors that George notes contributes to aging well.



Images
Missing Him is an illustration drawn by Kevin Gillespie from Sherri’s chapter in the Resilience book. Shirley’s husband was the Timothy in that chapter – both names changed.
Bamboo Scaffolding courtesy of Ioan Sameli
Loneliness courtesy of Cia de Foto
Grandmother and granddaughter courtesy of Jenny818
Love is Being Stupid Together courtesy of Nattu

14 Comments »

  • It’s a slippery slope to loneliness, too. At first, you may not realize you’re withdrawing. And you may not realize it until it feels like all of your connections are gone. Then you may hesitate to reconnect because you feel like an outsider and worry that you’ll be rejected. I think we all need to be careful of letting our social connections lapse since we all spend so much more time alone than we used to. And I know from personal experience, introverts need these connections too.

    Very informative article, thank you!

  • Hi, Pam-
    I strongly recommend the book Loneliness which describes in great detail the very slippery slope that you describe. The article listed above on loneliness contains highlights of the book.

  • Senia says:

    In a sense, Sherri, loneliness sounds like the opposite of resilience. One seems to be about interpreting everything as being unfixable and the other seems to be about interpreting everything as being fixable. How did you get interested in this topic, Sherri? What does the research show about how long it typically take for someone to get out of the cycle of loneliness?
    Best,
    S.

  • Hi, Senia-
    I’m not sure that loneliness is the opposite of resilience. I think loneliness can happen when people lose sight of (or don’t realize) “other people matter” and as Pam says in the comment above, it is a slippery slope. In the case of Shirley, in the article’s story, she became lonely even though she had an abundant, supportive group of friends and family members who reached out to include her.

    I also don’t think that resilience is about being able to “fix” things as much as it is managing well despite it all. In the PPND Resilience book, the story of Timothy exemplifies this. It’s the ability to do the Winston Churchill thing–When you’re going through hell, keep on going. Being able to “A-P-E” your thoughts does not fix things (or people), but it does make different choices more available to you. I think a resilient person may be appreciating what is good in an otherwise difficult situation, and as a result they take better care of themselves. Ann Masten’s “ordinary magic” seems much closer to resilience to me than being able to “fix”. So in that sense, Shirley was not realizing that her social situation was full of the “magic”–the nutrients she needed.

    John Cacioppo, the co-author of Loneliness, spoke at the Penn PP Summit in October and has a new model for positive and negative emotion which includes a third dimension called “evaluative space”. He believes that we think of the bipolarity of emotions + and – since that is how we measure them, as if they are on a number line. His model is very compelling. A recent graduate from MAPP who I met at the Summit recommended the book Loneliness. I have enjoyed reading it along with several of Cacioppo’s articles reviewing the evaluative space research.

    As to your question of how long does it take to get out of the loneliness cycle, I have not read any time lines that address that.

    :-) Sherri

  • Bryony says:

    My initial reaction to this article, is that it is framed in a very negative way, “don’t let me be lonely” (emphasising what we DON’T want in life), whereas it might be more appropriate for this topic to be framed in a positive way (given that this is positive psychology!) The second half of the title reflects the direction I feel Positive Psychology should take, “The health BENEFITS of social connections”, emphasising what is already good in our lives, and in our power to change for the better. For example, we can outline how much there is to GAIN by enhancing the social connections we already have, and learning how to develop new ones, so that there is an attitude of growth and empowerment. It feels uncomfortable to me to read a “positive psychology” article that is written with the emphasis on how much there is to LOSE, and describes someone experiencing a downward spiral. To me this article reads more like a traditional disorder-focused article on mental health problems and how to fix them (ie, what’s “wrong” with people), whereas in my opinion Positive Psychology should be coming from a more uplifting and hopeful perspective that seeks to build on peoples strengths and help them overcome difficulties. It is a very important topic and worth talking about, but I would rather read a positively re-framed perspective on this issue. Yes, we all have periods of loneliness and pain, but how can we work with and through that in a constructive and optimistic way?

  • Hi, Bryony–
    Thanks for reading the article despite your strong reaction to the title. The title is intentional (the first half is from a popular James Taylor song), and I wanted readers to consider that because other people matter so much (search for those words and you will find many articles here on the site),there is lots to lose when a person is in the loneliness cycle. It’s interesting that you found the article was focused on what was “wrong” and what needed to be “fixed” as opposed to what you have to offer friends and family.

    In Positive Psychology we don’t say, “Oh no, you don’t have any problems or weaknesses – only strengths.” Instead we look at what research says about pleasure, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment when things are working well–and when they are not. Across all of these domains, relationships matter.

    Positive Psychology is not positive thinking, and I hope that someone will read this article and realize that they probably know someone–perhaps several someones–who look and act as if they need to be alone but who are instead becoming separated from the very relationships that nurture them. That’s a great place for you to use your strengths–perhaps of love, or kindness, or humor or zest–to broaden and build those upward spirals.

    Thanks for reading and writing :-)

  • Meg says:

    Hi Sherri,

    I have been seeing this with my grandmother recently. She was widowed about 4 years ago and kept social for awhile afterwards but has gradually started to do less and less. When she goes out to eat it is always at the same place, no matter who she goes with. When she sees people she knows outside of her family she tries to avoid them because she says she doesn’t have the energy to keep a conversation going.

    Do you think that if she tried to branch out more and maintain social connections outside of her family that she would gain back some energy and be more happy? I sometimes think that it makes her perfectly happy to be living the way she is living but you made very interesting points that make me wonder if she would be happier if she put a little more energy into her social life.

    Thanks,
    Meg

  • Hi, Meg-
    Those are good questions. Not everyone has the same needs for social contact, so your observations that your grandmother seems to be less connected than what used to be “normal” for her are important. We can unwittingly feed the loneliness cycle by “honoring” the person’s apparent need for quiet. Finding the right way to interpret changing behaviors is important. Meanwhile, you can try thinking about things that might give your grandmother “experiences” to savor and perhaps places to meet a friend.

    The article below, by Elaine O’Brien, answers this question: “How can we help people experience more gratitude and build cross-generational ties that enrich their lives?”
    http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/elaine-obrien/2010053111393
    It is difficult for some people to remain grateful for the many people IN their lives when the one person they miss the most is gone from them…and laughing, happy people can seem annoying when you are unable to share the joy. Cross-generational links can create joy, build meaning and help keep aging people connected.

    A grandchild (that’s you!) can do lots of things to keep a grandmother engaged. I used to just “show up” to visit my widowed great-aunt, 250 miles away! Since she was not going to be going anywhere, a surprise visitor was very likely to find her home. I took pictures of my family, and brought flowers and something special to eat. I listened with rapt attention to her stories of yesteryear. Then I kept in touch with her by snail mail and phone, savoring the time we spent together and letting her know of her importance to me. You could write your grandmother a gratitude letter, too–(see here: http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/sherri-fisher/200911054625 ).

    Let me know what you try and how it works :-)

  • Renee' says:

    Hi Sherri…

    Thanks so much for posting this article. I, like Meg, have a grandmother that fits your description above. She sits at home, reads books, newspapers, magazines, etc..watches tv and does occassionally talk on the phone to a few friends. However, when she is invited out, she has an excuse. Usually along the lines of “It’s just too much trouble.” “I just don’t feel like getting up and getting dressed.” and the list goes on. I feel that she is becoming depressed and I am taking the steps to help her with that.

    My question for you is, do you think this self-distructing behavior occurs more often among the elderly or just as often among middle-aged people? From my experience, I have noticed that people in their late 30’s and 40’s may begin to show symptoms of “situational loneliness” but they usually after a short time, bounce back and begin to “live” again. It usually never gets to the point where it becomes a “chronic” condition.

    Anyway, just curious as to what your experience reflects regarding the age groups.

    Thanks!!
    Renee’

  • Hi, Renee-
    I think it probably goes without saying that a major life event like the loss of a spouse would potentially have a huge effect on a person’s willingness to reach out and get out. On the other hand, think about times when you did not want to go out somewhere and then did anyway..and it was FUN!

    An older person may see themselves as having most of their life behind them. The loss of a spouse may feel like punctuation, and the surviving spouse, like Shirley above, may feel shades of guilt when having a good time without the spouse. Having the opportunity for generativity, though, is important at any age.

    Something else which I have not written about in this article is HOPE. The late Rick Snyder talked about creating hope through pathways and agency. He defined hope as “a thinking process in which the person clearly conceptualizes goals, but also perceives that s/he can produce the pathways to these goals (called pathways thinking) and can initiate and sustain movement along those selected pathways (called agency thinking). Hope Theory has been used with people in the end stages of a terminal disease, not just for people trying to reach lofty career goals. I have not looked to see what Hope Theory interventions exist for aging adults.

    Here is another excellent article on this site, by Eleanor Chin: http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/eleanor-chin/200905041874
    Scroll down a bit to where she addresses hope building, resilience and positive relationships.

    Thanks for writing!
    Sherri

  • Paul Ray says:

    Ms. Fisher,

    In reference to your correspondence with Bryony above, I think it’s important to stress that Positive Psychology does not ignore negative emotions and behavior but is founded on the belief that people need to cultivate what is best within themselves to live more fulfilling lives by enhancing their positive experiences. However, I agree with Bryony that this article was framed in more of a traditional disorder focused fashion, but I think it is still very appropriate for this forum and well written. If I understand this correctly, the resolution is ultimately centered in positive psychology, such as understanding emotions and analyzing contentment with the past, happiness in the present and hope for the future. I have to admit that positive psychology makes me nervous in any capacity outside the realm of enhancing life. Okay, I agree that positive psychology can help prevent social disconnection as well as enhance life, but I struggle with it fixing problems. I question the effectiveness of positive psychology at addressing advance stages of the loneliness loop. I am new to this, but it is my understanding that positive psychology is best applied on psychologically healthy or “normal” people to help enhance their quality of life, but not so effective on people who already suffer from hyper-vigilant feelings of peril, or who lost the ability to self-regulate. I’m wondering if a traditional style intervention or hard-line therapeutic approach would be more effective at helping psychological disorders, such as overcoming this subject’s “Shirley’s” misguided instinct for self-preservation. I worry that positive psychology is prematurely moving toward applying a new brand of therapeutic techniques, with the result being the under treatment of patients with potentially dangerous symptoms, such as depression and withdrawal from social situations. Not only should family and friends keep the lines of communication open, like your article says, but also encourage professional help, which might utilize “old school techniques” such as medication in conjunction with therapy. Do you think that positive psychology is ready for this, or should it stick to things like studying individual strengths that foster better lives and communities?

  • Hi, Paul-
    These are all great questions and suggest a need for some clarification about what positive psychology is and isn’t. Positive psychology is, by the way, used by traditional psychologists and therapists with patients who have diagnoses, as well as by coaches in a variety of domains. The latter, I think, may be where some of your concern lies.

    You are correct when you say above about Shirley, that “the resolution is ultimately centered in positive psychology, such as understanding emotions and analyzing contentment with the past, happiness in the present and hope for the future.” Many therapeutic approaches are built on the research base that we draw from in positive psychology. An example is solutions focused (brief) therapy which specifically focuses on what is working rather than trying to “fix” the problem. There is a validated, manualized positive psychotherapy approach, too. Its aim is to re-educate attention, memory, and expectations away from the negative and the catastrophic toward the positive and the hopeful. (Seligman, Rashid and Parks)

    If you read Kathryn Britton’s article, “Two Bits of Wisdom About Long Term Relationships” http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kathryn-britton/2010111214433 you will note that 69% of conflicts are what relationship researchers and therapists John and Julie Gottman call “perpetual”, that is, they will never go away. The Gottman’s approach does not attempt to “fix” these problems but to teach skills to manage around them, to make relationships work.

    Think both/and, not either/or, about positive psychology! It is not anti-traditional psychology nor does it exist without the significant contributions of the many approaches that people currently use to support well-being.

    Thanks for writing!
    -Sherri

  • Paul Ray says:

    Ms. Fisher,

    What a great answer. Thank you for responding.

    Paul

  • Shawn Adams says:

    Well written! I love the positive psychology modality. I am a therapist and I find it challenging to get people to recognize the importance of being around other people. It is especially interesting with colleagues in private practice as this can be a particularly isolating field.

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