Author: Olga Khazan
Social isolation kills, and in the process it makes it harder to reach out to others. A psychologist explains how to break the cycle.
“I’m clearly a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary,” wrote Billy Baker in his recent exploration of male loneliness in The Boston Globe.
Perhaps one reason the piece made so many internet rounds is just how many people could relate: Last year Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that Americans are “facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.”
Though “I’m going to die alone” is the common grumble among single people, scientifically, it’s more like, “I’m going to die ifI’m alone.” A lack of social connections can spark inflammation and changes in the immune system, so lonely people are far more likely to die prematurely. Loneliness is more dangerous than obesity, and it’s about as deadly as smoking. The threat is considered so serious that England has created an entire “Campaign to End Loneliness.”
But in a cruel twist, the loneliest among us are set up to get lonelier still. People with few social connections experience brain changes that cause them to be more likely to view human faces as threatening, making it harder for them to bond with others.
To learn more about this conundrum, and how to resolve it, I recently spoke with John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who wrote a book on loneliness and has researched the phenomenon extensively. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
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