We’ve likely all felt it at some point in our lives – those depressing days (or more) when we walk through the world feeling like we’re traveling on a separate plane of existence from the rest of the happily coupled and connected human race. For some of us, however, these blips in social well-being take on a chronic trajectory, an ongoing emotional journey of their own. Loneliness can seem like a self-exacerbating condition. We’re isolated, and we’re unsure how to break through it. Some of us enjoy lifelong proximity to extended family, intact partnerships and childhood friendships that take us from grade school to grave. For many of us, however, we socialize more on Facebook than at our kitchen tables. We might have a strong core (“nuclear”) family but no friends in our current locales that we could call on at 2:00 in the morning.
In addition to the serious emotional toll, research suggests the physical fallout is rather grim as well. Studies have linked loneliness and social isolations to everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease, inflammation to immune issues. Additionally, loneliness can cause us to develop excessive reactivity to stress and throw our cortisol levels as well as our blood pressure into unhealthy territory. Its negative health impact is reportedly on par with that of smoking in terms of mortality risk. On the less immediately dire but disturbing end of things, it appears to set us up for pain, fatigue and depression. Although we might think more often of older adults and social isolation, there’s really something to the developmental processes of adolescence that put young adults at a higher risk for feelings of social isolation. What’s worse? Those who experience high or chronic levels of loneliness in those first couple decades of life fare worse down the road in terms of both mental and physical health. Something doesn’t feel too Primal here.
As I’ve suggested before, there’s something to the ancestral context – the genetically wired, “expected” conditions that characterized our evolutionary history. Extended isolation meant almost sure death in our ancestors’ days. The risk was so great, we evolved sophisticated social natures to keep ourselves voluntarily bound to our insulating band communities, which presumably ran somewhere in the 20-50 person range, although they likely had a larger circle of neighboring acquaintances and extended family numbering around 150 known today as Dunbar’s number for social cohesion.
These days our social lives often bear little to no resemblance to that of our Primal forebears. In the culture of social media, we often settle (or sometimes compete) for the appearance of connections rather than the realities (beneficial and challenging) of intimacy. We’ve lost the preference for – and maybe even understanding of – what truly fills the well socially. Far, far away from the standards of our ancestral conditions, I often think our barometers have become skewed – when we listen to our culture instead of our clearer instincts anyway. Can we differentiate, for example, loneliness from solitude, that vital and therapeutic experience of simply being fully present to yourself? Do we have the same collective sense of give and take, grown up friendships that are tested (and grown) by change over time? Some suggest we often settle into a collection of “situational friendships,” connections organized (and separated) by setting or life activity. What do we end up missing as a result?
Although it seems to be less directly studied, I think much of our loneliness and isolation can often come as a result of our estrangement from that larger context of our “expected environment” as well. The same loneliness that can feel soul-crushing day after day in your living room feels more porous, even dispersed, in the middle of a forest next to a rushing river. In the living, breathing world of nature – even if there’s not another hominid within 10 miles – I think we instinctually feel the age-old sense of kinship. We’re home in a manner of evolutionary speaking. We’re also in the presence of something larger than ourselves. You could say we’re taken down to right size, which might at first glance seem more depressing, but I think it’s a question of restorative humility. The dimensions of the modern Self can become distorting and downright burdensome. In certain situations, a portion of loneliness might be the psychic rut of inadvertent solipsism.
That said, there are still older adults who live out their days in institutions without a single visitor and few connections among their co-residents. There are adolescents who feel stuck in a social arena they’ll never fit into and simply aren’t connected to any other rooted and functional family or community circles. There are new mothers at home who feel isolated more days than they can count because they can’t find a way off a hamster wheel of caregiving they never could’ve envisioned. There we might see any of us at a given time of our lives when the roots are pulled up by choice or circumstance and social connections dissipated through death, divorce, relocation or maybe just forgetfulness. Each day we’re overwhelmed by the demands of just living and working. We put off maintaining or making social connections. Years later, we look around and wonder what happened to our friendships and close family relationships. The realization alone can induce a regretful burden of loneliness – not to mention the shadows of those other health effects….
The fact is, our modern social circle is much more disjointed than that of our ancestors. We accept fragmentation as a necessary condition of modern progress, career climbing and “free” living. We all have to make those choices, and it’s not about right or wrong. Sure, there’s something to knowing your neighbors, having them see your kids grow up and feeling like you can call people around the corner at 2:00 a.m. if you need to. It’s a sense of knowing and feeling known, of nurturing a visceral bond with community and place that comes with, as author Scott Russell Sanders examines it, “staying put.”
Long term communities and commitments aside, however, I’ve experienced first-hand how powerful it can be to meet people who feel like long lost family. Relationships can burst onto the scene as well as evolve. In the newest of places and the oddest of circumstances, meaningful and transformative social connections can take hold. Some of my closest friends today are those I met later in my life. I was following a new vision for myself at the time, and with that came an unconscious openness to new connections. Sometimes it depends as much on where we’re at in our individual journeys as where we’re at geographically.
On that note, let me put in a plug for the Grokfeasts that will again be part of this year’s upcoming 21-Day Challenge. Attending or organizing a Grokfeast is a great way to discover like-minded people in your area and celebrate Primal living in community. I know many a continuing social circle and genuine friendship (even relationship!) that have come as a result of these and related meetups!
Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on the connection between loneliness and compromised well-being. Have a good end to the week.