When you’re lonely, it’s easy to think you’re a social misfit — boring, too needy, too long-winded or too quiet, too something. You may worry that you lack the social sensitivity required to fit in and be good company. By the same logic, you may judge others, assuming someone who is lonely lost connections for good reasons. All this worry can be the core of the problem.
Psychologists have tested whether lonely people lack basic social skills, for example, failing to notice facial expressions or misreading them. It turns out that social skills aren’t the key. In a study that tracked eye movements, analyzing how much lonely women looked at faces, the researchers found no differences between them and women who didn’t report loneliness. In other research, lonely people did well at reading facial expressions — but only if the test was described as measuring something else, like “problem-solving.” If they knew they were being tested on their social skills, they did badly. Fear got in the way.
The authors titled their paper “Choking Under Social Pressure,” making an analogy to sports, when athletes “choke under pressure” in the most important competitions. The researchers concluded, “Lonely individuals may not need to acquire social skills to escape loneliness; instead, they must learn to cope with performance anxiety in interpersonal interactions.”
If you don’t learn to cope with that anxiety, you may end up acting in odd off-putting ways. One lonely woman I know is charming one-on-one. But when she enters a roomful of people, she looks for signs of danger in every exchange and usually finds them. She frequently feels insulted, and other people see her as abrasive and picking fights.
Even if you didn’t fail socially, you may think you did or worry over fleeting glances and chance remarks that have nothing to do with you. Some people are afraid of shining — maybe other people will envy them. Simply the fact that you’re being evaluated — however well you do — can make you anxious, studies show, so you may try to be inconspicuous. In the end, you may be lonely, even after interacting with people you like.
Loneliness has real consequences. In a review of studies over 34 years, researchers concluded that feeling isolated or lonely upped your chances of dying young by about 30 percent, for both men and women. Loneliness increases your risk of dementia, depression, and heart disease.
This doesn’t mean you’re in danger if you like spending time alone. How you perceive your circumstances matters tremendously: “People can live relatively solitary lives and not feel lonely, and conversely, they can live an ostensibly rich social life and feel lonely nevertheless,” write psychologists John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley.
As Cacioppo and Hawkley put it, loneliness is the “social equivalent of physical pain, hunger, and thirst.” Just as thirst makes you seek water you need to sustain yourself, loneliness gives us a needed push to form new ties or connect more with the people we already value. This is especially clear when we feel lonely after losing bonds — after a divorce or death, or when we move to a new area. But as many as 15to 30 percent of the people around us feel lonely chronically, Cacioppo and Hawkley report.
If you’re often lonely, you may be too anxious to feel secure in the bonds you have. You may also need a different kind of bond or interaction. Maybe you sit with your spouse and feel lonely because he doesn’t want to talk about emotions; call up a girlfriend who thrives on drama. Maybe you’re bored by your colleagues, who only talk about TV shows; find serious shop talk elsewhere. “In the grand scale of things, loneliness is a privilege,” writes David Whyte, in “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.” “Animals may feel alone in an instinctual way, moving naturally and affectionately toward others of their kind, but human beings may be the only beings that can articulate, imagine or call for a specific life they feel they might be missing.”
June 01, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA