A couple of days ago I came across an article titled, “The Science of Loneliness” which was published by Psychology Today. Anything to do with the brain and science and emotions I can’t seem to read enough of lately. So I saved it in a tab, anxious to read it when I had time. As I later settled in to read the article, I was intrigued. By the end, however, I was fascinated and disheartened.
I must say the topic holds special place in my heart as I felt lonely for most of my life. Never feeling like I quite fit in. The odd ball in the group. Friends of people but never the best friend. Always hanging somewhere around the outside edge in the circle of friends but never near the center. Knowing thousands of people around the world but somehow still feeling alone.
All of that changed a few years ago when I learned how to be the friend of God not just someone who obeys and remains distant. Being God’s friend, changed everything. I went from desperately lonely to eternally grateful. There is still a place in my heart that longs for day to day community and a husband and kids but it is different. Before it was as if I was trying to fit square pegs into round holes but couldn’t even see that they were different. The holes meant to be filled by community and family are much smaller in comparison to the one God fills.
I say all that because this article mentions a few things that blew me away! The author talks about how she has friends that she hangs out with regularly. She has a husband and two daughters. She is not alone. The distinction she makes is that of all her friends (except perhaps her husband who is not a talker) have friends who are closer than she is. And she would define herself as lonely.
She talks later about how loneliness has nothing to do with socioeconomic status or even things we can see. And as she launches into how the brain make up is different in a lonely person versus a non lonely person is where it is crazy to me.
The lonely brain is different from the non-lonely brain, says John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and one of the nation’s leading experts on the neurobiology of loneliness. In people like me, who for various reasons are primed to define ourselves as lonely — more on those reasons later — the brain switches easily into self-preservation mode when we’re feeling loneliest, quick to see social danger even when it isn’t there.
So in those who would classify themselves as lonely are going to run with that belief. They are going to see things that aren’t there more often than not. The lonely person even sleeps less or if they sleep a lot, it is less restorative. As UCSF geriatrician Carla Perissinotto put it, loneliness is “the discrepancy between one’s desired relationships and one’s actual relationships.” Here are some other interesting things scientists have noted:
One study in Chicago found that old people who were lonely had twice the normal risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study linked loneliness to increased levels of inflammation in response to stress, placing people at higher risk of various conditions.
And the UCSF study, using data that followed more than 1,600 people over age 60 for six years, found that during that time one-quarter of those who were lonely had developed problems with bathing, feeding, dressing, or otherwise taking care of themselves — twice the rate of those who were not.
But then here’s the kicker….the place that my heart screams with excitement and joy! The author asks Cacioppo if lonely people are simply screwed then. He explains that he doesn’t see it that way. In his study, the mere awareness of the tendency to lean that way is the first step in conquering loneliness. I love that because I see that line up perfectly with “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” I LOVE seeing science coming to conclusions God spoke of long ago.
We aren’t alone! We let our perception of current relationships and where we want them to be, be the indicator of how we feel and let that feeling rule instead of truth. It isn’t merely about our experience but what we tell ourselves about our experience. How are we talking to ourselves?!
And there in lies the answer, to not just loneliness but a myriad of social woes. I am responsible for what I tell myself. My feelings aren’t always reality but are an indicator of a problem somewhere. The problem isn’t always clear which is why these feelings are trying to point to something. Loneliness is a feeling pointing to a poor systemic way of thinking, with dedication and focused attention, that can be changed.
My life is not the same. I no longer feel bent towards loneliness. Yes. There are moments where it knocks me off my feet and surprises me. There are situations where my heart feels the pain. And with that invitation, every time I take it to God as ask Him to show me His reality, not my own. When we can get past life is all about this moment, and if this moment is painful and wrong then all is painful and wrong, life looks much differently.