Every one of us will experience loneliness in our lifetime. It may hit us when we’re single and spending Saturday night on our couch watching reruns or when we’re smack at the center of a packed and pulsating party. There is one clear reason for this, and that is that loneliness is not just being alone, it is a perception of seeing ourselves as alone.
Obviously our circumstances will play a part in how we feel. Break ups, losses, separations and moves can make us feel pretty lonely. However, a great amount of what leads to chronic loneliness is the way we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us. Research now shows that people who struggle with loneliness may perceive the world differently. In one study published by the American Psychological Association, researcher John Cacioppo found differences in the “lonely brain” both structurally and biochemically. Someone who struggles with loneliness may have more difficulty recognizing positive events, as the lonely brain shows suppressed neural responses to positive images and events. They also seem to have more trouble picturing the thoughts of others or “mentalizing.”
Another University of Chicago study showed that “Lonely individuals are more likely to construe their world as threatening, hold more negative expectations and interpret and respond to ambiguous social behavior in a more negative, off-putting fashion, thereby confirming their construal of the world as threatening and beyond their control.” If this is the case, then those who are lonely may be more likely to miss social queues. They may fail to recognize a welcoming look, a subtle invitation or an act of acceptance, thus perpetuating the cycle of loneliness.
It’s helpful to recognize that loneliness is very much a state of mind, and unfortunately, that mind is, in effect, lying to us. It is even putting our mental and physical health at risk. As the same study by John Cacioppo points out, social isolation is “a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality.” Yet, if the worst news is that loneliness can kill us, the best news is that we can save our lives.
Because loneliness has a lot to do with how we think about our circumstances and less to do with our actual circumstances, we have a lot of power in changing it. As another study revealed, “The way in which people construe their self in relation to others around them has powerful effects on their self-concept and, possibly, on their physiology.” So, if we change the filter through which we see ourselves, we can change our feelings of loneliness.