Loneliness is something we all experience at various points in our lives and often spend a lot of time, energy, and money trying to mitigate. But how much do we really know about it? Researchers at the University of Leuven (Belgium), University of Chicago, and VU University Amsterdam recently broke down the biological origins of loneliness, and what they found is both good news and bad news: On the one hand, it can kill us (an interesting point in light of research released last week that linked solitude to higher mortality rates); but on the other, it's also helped the human race thrive. Here's everything you ever wanted to know about loneliness:
The authors of the study looked at previously conducted research and four main topics linked to evolutionary history in order to answer the question of how genetic and environmental factors work together to create loneliness. These four topics are the degree of heritability, the main effect of the candidate's genes, the conditional effect's of the candidate's genes, and the transcribability of the genetic code. In layman's terms, they looked at how loneliness is inherited genetically and how the factors in the person's life also play into the creation of loneliness.
The researchers uncovered a lot about our loneliness — here are some of the highlights that their work revealed:
1. Our Loneliness Helped The Species to Survive
From an evolutionary perspective, the researchers ascribe loneliness to be a built-in psychological mechanism that encourages us to create strong connections and support systems. If you think about how terrible feeling lonely is, it makes sense that this urge to find connection would help humans to survive; basically, it forces us to interact. The pain that we feel when we're by ourselves makes us want to find people to bond with fast, which once ensured that humans created these vital social connections. When food and shelter were scarce, you can imagine the importance of being a part of a group. According to the paper, "Loneliness has played an important role in the evolution of the human species, given that reconnecting with others increases one’s chances of survival and opportunities to pass on one’s genes to the next generation.”
2. Loneliness Can Be Genetically Inherited...
The researchers were right with their hypothesis that loneliness can be passed down through our DNA. They analyzed several studies that looked at twins and loneliness and conclude that heritability of loneliness is at about 50 percent, which is considered to be statistically significant.
3. ...But Our Environment Still Matters
Even though loneliness can be found in our genes, that doesn't mean that our experiences in life don't contribute to it! Those who had a strong chance of experiencing loneliness because of genetics were less likely to experience it if they had strong connections and support networks, meaning that we can compensate where our DNA falls short.
4. Loneliness is Linked to Having a Weaker Immune System
Remember how I introduced this article by saying that being lonely can kill you? Well, here's exactly how that can happen: The researchers found an interesting link between your immune system performance and your level of loneliness. In their research, they incorporated a study that some genes linked to biological function were overly expressed in those who were lonely, creating a greater risk of heart disease and illness. This could also explain why cancer patients with strong social ties tend to have a higher rate of survival than those who don't, the researchers say. "The fact that expression of loneliness-associated genes proved related to survival time in cancer patients could provide a glimpse into the mechanism underlying the loneliness-mortality link," they explained.
Based on their findings, the scientists concluded that loneliness might continue to be passed down as a means of helping the species survive; at the same time, though, it can also create negative consequences on an individual level, like having a greater chance of death. But the feeling can inform us when we need greater human interaction and connection, in theory warding off the potential negative consequences of loneliness by promoting you to fix the problem.
So... Now What?
Don't live a lonely existence — go and connect with people! If you're feeling too solitary, go out into the world and spend time with people, face to face. Go out to dinner with friends, see a movie, even just pop into Starbucks on your walk to work. Do things that give you opportunities to connect with others and instead of wallowing in your emotions, create those strong social ties. After all, your biology is trying to tell you something.