10 Fascinating Insights Into Loneliness

Weve all had those days where we just dont feel like were socially connecting with anyone and where the world seems so very big and were so very small. Loneliness affects some more than others, and for some people, it can be the start of an endless cycle. Its even deadly for some animals, but understanding loneliness might help keep you from sinking into the deep, dark hole.

10The Loneliest Place On Earth

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So you want to get away from it allfrom everything and everyone. Sure, you could head out into the woods, but what if you wanted to be completely, absolutely alone? Whats the loneliest place on Earth?

Point Nemoif you can get thereis the point on the globe thats farthest away from any terrestrial organism. Its in the middle of the South Pacific, between Maher Island off the coast of the Antarctic, Motu Nui near Easter Island, and Ducie Island, an uninhabited island to the north. Point Nemonamed for the Jules Verne characterwas only discovered in 1992, when satellite technology was finally good enough to allow us to accurately map coastlines and chart just what point was equidistant from all of them. The point is 2,300 kilometers (1,450 mi) away from each of the islands, making it the loneliest place on Earth.

Its so lonely that its doubtful anyone has ever even been there. No one had ever been to Maher Island until it was discovered in the 1940s. Theres certainly no easy way to get to Point Nemo, and theres nothing to be found there even if you did make the trip. Theres not even a beacon or a buoy, just more endless ocean and more being alone.

9Feeling Lonely vs. Social Isolation

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Humans are very social creatures. Weve always relied on each other to survive. That reliance on others makes defining loneliness a tricky thing. According to studies done by University College London, theres a big difference between being lonely and being socially isolated. Its only when you start to look at loneliness in the context of how socially connected we are that you see how subjective a feeling it really is. There are people that can live miles away from anyone, have little contact with their family, and not be lonely, while other people can live on a busy street, regularly meet for family dinners, have friends they see on a daily basis, and still feel lonely.

That all gets even more tricky when you look at it in the context of the elderly. When researchers wanted to find out which was potentially more dangerous, being lonely or being isolated, they looked at 6,500 men and women aged 52 and older and rated them based on their risk of death over the course of 12 years. They ultimately came to the conclusion that social isolation was potentially more dangerous than just feeling lonely. When they looked at social isolation, they could predict patterns in health and well-being that reports of loneliness didnt allow them to. In the end, the study found that even if youre lonely, maintaining social connections was necessary for long-term health.

8Homesickness

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Homesickness is a particular kind of loneliness we feel when were away from home. For some people, it can be crippling. While its estimated that about 70 percent of people who move away from home suffer from it in some way, for a smaller percentage, homesickness can mean sinking into the dark pit of depression that they can only crawl out of with help. The most severe cases can come with panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares, and complete withdrawal from the surroundings that are new and completely unsettling.

Homesickness is certainly nothing new, either. Its described in Homers Odyssey, but it was only formally given a name when it was used to describe the feelings of loneliness and longing that Swiss soldiers got when they were far from home. In the 17th century, homesickness was thought to be an incredibly dangerous disease that would kill if left untreated. After that, popular opinion shifted. To be homesick was childish: It was what a grade-schooler felt during his first week at summer camp.

All of that meant that we stopped talking about it. We dont even know that much about homesickness, save for its very real effects. We know that some thingsanything, reallycan trigger it, and sometimes the tools we use to try to alleviate homesickness can make it worse. Hop on Facebook to keep in touch with friends back home, and its a cold reminder that youre not there to be in any of the pictures. And now, were also starting to think that homesickness never actually goes awaynot entirely, at least.

7The Social Surrogacy Hypothesis

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Lonelinessand how we deal with itis a notoriously difficult bit of psychology to explore. Its only recently that researchers from the University of Buffalo and Miami University have started to explore what they call the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis.

The theory basically states that television can act as a surrogate for people who are longing to form meaningful social relationships. The researchers looked at when people turned to their favorite television shows, under what circumstances they tended to watch them, how they wrote about the shows and the characters, and how a persons current relationship status (including whether theyd just had a fight with a close friend or significant other) impacted their reactions to watching the shows.

They found that people who were lonely, had just experienced a blow to their self-esteem, or had been in an argument were craving social interaction that could be replaced with something called a parasocial relationship. Thats the relationship that develops between us and our favorite television characters when we become so invested in their lives that our brains view them as something of a close friend. We worry about them, we wait to find out what happens next, and we take it all very personally. The more lonely we are, the stronger that connection, and the more likely we are to be satisfied by these one-sided relationships.

6Loneliness Killed The Woolly Mammoth

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Photo via: Wikimedia

Theres something incredibly heartbreaking about being among the last surviving handful of an entire species, and weve recently found out that thats exactly what happened to the woolly mammoth.

After two huge population declines, the last of the woolly mammoths lived on an island off the Russian coast. For 6,000 years, a tiny pocket of woolly mammoths scraped out a living on the rugged island. Without enough diversity in the population, they slowly got more inbred, and the species made its final decline. Its estimated that after the second major population decline, which killed off the mainland population and all but 3001,000 island-dwelling individuals, the population was never able to recover.

The island-dwelling mammoths were cut off from their mainland cousins by the rising sea levels that created their island and ultimately condemned the last surviving members to an incredibly lonely death. While the species recovered from the first population drop over the course of about 100,000 years, the isolation and inbreeding ultimately led to their extinction. Scientists still arent sure just what happened to the mainland population, but with the discovery of the complete mammoth genome, theyve learned just how inbred the final members of the species really were.

5Loneliness Makes Us See Inanimate Objects Differently

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Researchers from Dartmouth College have found that extended periods of loneliness change the way we start to see inanimate objects. When were craving human contact and socialization, we start to have a slightly different relationship with things like online avatars and dollsespecially those with human faces. When subjects were shown photos of morphs that had varying degrees of human and animated features, those that were lonely were more likely to describe the faces as completely human.

The study even showed a pronounced difference in how our mood impacts our ability to see faces. Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire, then given feedback on what their answers suggested about their future. Feedback was completely random (even though students didnt know it). Those students that were given a prediction of a lonelier future were also more likely to see more human faces.

This impact can also be extended into the territory of the uncanny valley effect. Typically, we have a tendency to view animated people and robots who are too lifelike as creepy and unsettling. That reaction is partially negated in lonely people, though, who tend to find artificial faces more attractive.

4Electric Shock Is Preferable To 15 Minutes Of Loneliness

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Imagine, for a minute, that you have nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no one to talk to. Your assigned task is to just sit in a room and think. Daydream. Imagine. Whatever you like, as long as its in your own head. Sound awesome? Psychologists from Harvard University and University of Virginia conducted a series of 11 studies that demonstrated something pretty surprising. For most of us, its not awesome at all, and wed rather be doing anything elseeven if the only thing available to us hurts.

They tested people between the ages of 18 and 77 and asked them to sit in a room for periods of anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. Regardless of age, the results were much the same: People found it hard to think, hard to concentrate, completely unenjoyable, and insanely difficult. Those that were put in a room with no outlet for entertainment outside of their own head found themselves restless and distracted, unable to concentrate. When they were in their own homes, most of them couldnt do it at all and cheated by playing music or playing with a cell phone.

The experiment got epic when the only thing the subjects were given was a button that would administer an electric shock to them when they pushed it. Even though most people stated they would pay money to avoid being shocked before the experiment started, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women were so overcome by the lack of sensory input that they found shocking themselves preferable to the lonely sensation of being inside their own heads for only 15 minutes.

3Loneliness Spreads Like A Disease

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By now, weve watched enough shows and movies about the zombie apocalypse to know that it spreads across the world like a disease. Loneliness does, too.

Researchers from the University of Chicago looked at exactly how loneliness spreads, and they found that like the spread of a nasty germ, it all starts with a nasty encounter. Say youre already feeling pretty down, and a friend makes an offhand comment or does something that makes you uncomfortable. If you were in a better mood, you might not have even noticed it, but as it is, it strikes right at the heart of your gloomy day. When you get home, you remember that. It sticks with you, and the next time you might have called your friend to go grab a drink after work, you dont. From your friends point of view, you stopped calling them. That leads to the crumbling of a friendship and puts them in the same mood you were in when they accidentally offended you.

Sounds far-fetched? Its not. Lonely people can unintentionally make themselves lonelier by anticipating actions that are going to hurt them. In turn, this makes them drift to the social fringes. In a study of 5,000 subjects, researchers looked at how lonely people felt on particular days and their social interactions for those days. They found that loneliness is contagious to the third degree. People who are chronically lonely have been found to transmit that to other acquaintances, who then go on to similarly drift to the outskirts of their social groups as that network unravels.

This might have some very concrete implications for the treatment of mental illness, depression, and chronic loneliness. Knowing how social networks impact each other can allow people to become more proactive in mending relationships before they start to unravel and before loneliness leads to a post-apocalyptic mental wasteland.

2Comfort Food Fights Loneliness

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Whats that favorite food that you always requested for your birthday? How about that special anniversary dinner? The meal that mom made when she knew you were going through a tough time? Theres a reason its called comfort food, and its been found that just thinking about it has a very real impact on our loneliness.

A study done at the University of Buffalo asked participants to write about a fight theyd had with someone they loved, in order to set a baseline of anxiety, sadness, and a threatened social status. Afterward, they were asked to either write about their favorite comfort food or a new food that theyd like to try. When they were asked to rate their loneliness after that, those that wrote about their comfort food felt significantly less lonely.

Another study had students eat chicken soup, then fill missing letters into words. Those that ate chicken soup and considered it one of their comfort foods were more likely to use letters that spelled out relationship-centric words. On the other hand, those that didnt consider chicken soup as comfort food (or werent given the soup) created words that were not related to social interaction or relationships.

That all seems to suggest that comfort foodeven if were just thinking about ithas a profound impact on our emotional state.

1Brains Of Lonely People Work Differently

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Its been shown that the brains of lonely people are visibly different from the brains of those who dont suffer from chronic loneliness.

An admittedly small study conducted by the University of Chicago focused on people whose answers to a questionnaire identified them as socially isolated and lonely. When these people were shown pictures of others enjoying themselves, there was less activity in the part of the brain that typically reacts to rewards and pleasure. Researchers werent sure if the lack of activity in the brain led to feelings of loneliness or if prolonged social isolation had conditioned the brain to respond in a way that was likely to increase their isolation. Nevertheless, researchers are certain that it has the potential to be a major breakthroughand one that couldnt come at a better time. With more people having increasingly smaller families, its estimated that the number of people living alone will continue to climb. Knowing just how our brains are programmed may go a long way in helping those who suffer from chronic loneliness.

Loneliness has also been shown to impact how we process cold temperatures. A study from the University of Toronto found that when participants were asked to recount a situation in which they were isolated from a social group reported that the temperature in the room was, on average, much colder than those that were asked to talk about a time they were included in a group setting. Researchers also ran another experiment in which a group of people played catch, with some people being excluded more than others. Those that were excluded were more likely to gravitate toward hot drinks after the game. This suggests that we pick a hot cup of tea or coffeeor our favorite chicken soupbecause of a quite literal cold feeling we get from isolation. Researchers go on to state that they suspect this link forms in us during infancy, where babies associate warmth with social interaction.

+Animals Can Die From Loneliness

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We think loneliness is a pretty sad feeling, and there are always going to be those cynical people that insist animals dont have the same feelings. But we know thats not trueand we can prove it.

A study of the effects of social isolation and loneliness on African gray parrots found something pretty heartbreaking. Telomeres are sections of DNA that are responsible for regulating the stability of chromosomes. As birds get older, their age is reflected in the length of the telomeres. Nine-year-old parrots who were kept in cages alone had the same telomere structures as socialized birds that were 23 years old, showing that the stress of isolation and loneliness is so real that it degrades the genetic makeup of birds at a staggering rate.

And recently, researchers have found another animal that suffers absolute agony from loneliness: the ant. Research from the University of Tokyo found that separating a single ant from its colony leaves it with a lifespan thats reduced by 91 percent, for a pretty bizarre reason. An ant thats alone is incapable of digesting its food. While ants regurgitate and share food in their nest, a single ant will simply pace back and forth and store its undigested food . . . until it dies from loneliness.