By Dr. Nancy Fishman / Morgan Hill, Calif.
During the 50 years I have worked with people in my career as a therapist, I have been constantly reminded of what I have come to believe is the single most motivating force in human existence...the avoidance of loneliness. Let me explain the difference between appreciating time alone and the feeling of loneliness.
Most people look forward to alone time, or what we often call “me time”: the uninterrupted self-care opportunity to read a book, take a bath, or go for a nature walk. The feeling of loneliness, on the other hand, is a gut-wrenching experience that feels as though fangs are embedded in your heart.
Loneliness is an existential threat to our survival. We are social animals, not meant to be alone. The dread of loneliness is what drives us to seek life partners and form lasting relationships. In truth, we can survive any amount of fear or pain if we know there is just one other person in the world who knows us and is willing to be down in the weeds when we need them.
Do you remember the 2000 movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks? His character, Chuck Noland, survives a plane crash and washes up on a deserted island. After tending to basic food, water and shelter needs, he becomes acutely aware he is alone, and lonely. That’s when he discovers a volleyball with the manufacturer’s name written across its face. Noland immediately refers to the ball as Wilson and personifies it as his companion for the four years he is stranded.
At last, Noland tells Wilson they must leave the island if they are to have any chance for rescue. Noland builds a raft, tethers Wilson to one end, and sets sail. As Noland looks toward the horizon with hope, he carries on a dialogue with Wilson allowing the viewer to understand the importance of companionship. At a critical moment, Noland looks back only to discover Wilson has become untethered and is drifting away from the raft in a perilous current, too far for Noland to swim to the ball and get safely back to the raft.
In that split second, we can almost feel the painful choice Noland must make: swim to Wilson and certainly drown with the personified friend by his side or remain on the raft without Wilson and perhaps die alone waiting to be rescued.
It is this existential crisis of fearing loneliness that influences our impulses and decisions and drives our behaviors. All mammals rely on others for survival; humans are no different. We do whatever motivates us, conscious or not, to avoid loneliness.
Before Covid, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, went on a listening tour of the country. He was astounded by the number of people across all cultures, walks of life and socioecocomic strata, who expressed feelings of loneliness. So he launched a project to study the effects of loneliness on health.
Recently released, the study is titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation 2023”. It definitively states: “Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26 percent and 29 percent respectively.” The study defines loneliness as “a subjective internal state. It’s the distressing experience that results from perceived isolation.”
The study also states: “Poor or insufficient social connection is associated with increased risk of disease, including a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increase risk of stroke. Furthermore, [loneliness] is associated with increased risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia. Additionally, the lack of social connection may increase susceptibility to viruses and respiratory illnesses.”
Dr. Murthy’s spotlight on the adverse health effects of loneliness on both mental and physical health also exemplifies the interconnection between mind and body.
Because Dr. Murthy began his listening tour prior to the Covid crisis, the findings reported in the 2023 document may not adequately account for the spike in emotional trauma accrued during Covid isolation. During the most restrictive months of Covid, many people around the world were trapped in isolated situations and had to confront their instinctive avoidance of loneliness.
If we accept the premise that loneliness causes adverse health reactions, we can well understand the increase in requests for both emotional and physical health care as a consequence of the Covid crisis.
With a heightened awareness of the very real phenomenon of loneliness avoidance, we can begin to understand human behavior. What makes people tick? Where does it all begin? Why do we do what we do to ourselves and others? What is critically most important to us?
These are just some of the questions to which people seek answers when they engage in psychotherapy. Regardless of where they begin, I seem to follow them right back to this fundamental question: How do I avoid loneliness?
It is not so easy to find a human partner who matches well enough to make a lifelong commitment. So, what are some alternatives that address our need to avoid loneliness?
Community, Friendship, and Pets!
Once again, we are social animals. It is instinctive for us to seek community for survival and need fulfillment. Opportunities are everywhere to join or create community: classes, volunteer groups, neighborhoods, special interest groups, sports teams.
Even those who prefer to stay home most of the time can find community online in chat rooms, games and with social media. It is through community that we can meet a promising love partner and develop friendships. There’s nothing like a great friend when we feel the threat of loneliness.
And let’s not discount the importance of having a loyal pet...someone furry and cuddly, who loves you unconditionally, and will listen to you endlessly. Even birds and reptiles can be comforting when a dog or cat is impossible to house.
If the Covid pandemic heightened our awareness of the existence of loneliness as a real phenomenon, an actual threat to our health, then let’s treat it with due respect. Let’s consider the many children who eat lunch alone in school cafeterias, co-workers who return home to solitary lives, neighbors who rely on check-out clerks and medical personnel for human contact.
There are surely people living among us who just might appreciate a little chat. Reach out, offer someone a respite from the loneliness they bear. You certainly will discover benefits for yourself as well!
This column is devoted to psychological topics that speak to the human condition, such as relationships, family, love, loss and happiness. The ideas, thoughts, philosophies, and observations expressed here are personal and not meant as professional advice.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a particular issue you would like addressed. Let’s talk!
Nancy Fishman, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, consultant, and author. Visit her website for an extended biography and more information: www.NancyFishmanPhD.com