True, loneliness is bad for your health — some research, in fact, has shown that it can increase your risk of early death by as much as 26 percent — but once upon a time, it was also part of what kept humans alive. Like pain, which signals that we should attend to and fix whatever’s ailing us, loneliness can be a motivating force, prompting us to seek out companionship. Loneliness is a sign that something’s wrong, that there are actions we should be taking to make ourselves feel better. And because humans are social animals meant to live in groups, an emotion that pushed people to interact with one another would have increased our ancestors’ chances of survival.
But loneliness can also have an uglier side, sapping our empathy and making us more self-absorbed. At least, that’s the argument of a new study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Led by John Cacioppo, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory, the study authors argued that feeling lonely, besides pushing us to seek out social connections, may also bring us to a heightened state of awareness. If our ancestors were excluded from a group, Cacioppo and his colleagues reasoned, they were often in immediate danger, sparking the body to kick into self-preservation mode, with biological effects like increased blood flow to the muscles, higher cortisol, and lighter sleep. Cognitively, that same instinct can mean we prioritize ourselves over others to a higher degree. (It can also mean looking at potential new connections with a more critical eye — although joining a community may have increased our ancestors’ chances for survival, making a mistake and trusting a community with hostile intentions when alone and vulnerable would have been disastrous.)
For the study, Cacioppo and his team followed 229 middle-aged participants in the Chicago area over the course of a decade, measuring the progression of both loneliness and self-centeredness over time. An increase in an individual’s loneliness one year, they found, predicted an increase in how often they put themselves first the next year — an effect that was independent of depression and negative moods. The results, the authors explained, support the idea that loneliness is more than a negative state that pushes us to seek relationships; it also promotes a mind-set of self-preservation.
The relationship was also present in the opposite direction, with self-centeredness in one year predicting a small increase in loneliness in the next. This seems logical; selfish people, after all, can be pretty unpleasant to spend time with. But this reciprocal relationship should be cause for worry: It suggests that being alone, ironically, can push us further away from others, to our own detriment.
The study’s authors suggest that loneliness is meant to be an acute emotion — one that pushes us to reconnect immediately, if carefully, with others — but that it’s often experienced chronically instead. Let’s go back to the pain metaphor: Acute pain may lead us to take care of an injury and save our lives, but chronic pain can decrease our quality of life and ultimately exacerbate the problem. In the same way, loneliness may help motivate us to reconnect with loved ones, but it can also push us to look after ourselves at the expense of our relationships. And these days, when social contact is less immediately essential for survival, those effects may be more pronounced than they were millennia ago, when loners might not have lasted long enough to experience chronic loneliness.
The key to overcoming loneliness, then, may lie in “retraining how we think about other people,” Cacioppo explained in a recent interview in Fortune. Chronic loneliness isn’t a problem with social skills or personality, he noted; to break the feedback loop of loneliness and self-centeredness, Cacioppo suggested working to consciously adjust your mind-set to something more positive, starting with an awareness of what you’re working against. “It’s understanding what loneliness is doing,” he said, “and try[ing] to correct for the behavior it encourages.”