Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Louise Hawkley, researcher with NORC at the University of Chicago
Paul Ingles: Dr. Hawkley, is there a definition of the term “loneliness” that researchers, for the most part, can agree on?
Louise Hawkley: Yes, I’d say for the most part, researchers talk about loneliness as a distressing feeling that corresponds to a discrepancy between the kinds of relationships one would like to have and the ones one actually has.
Ingles: In research studies, is there a standard battery of questions that have been developed that might establish where one would fall on a loneliness spectrum?
Hawkley: I’m glad you put it that way. There is a loneliness spectrum. We’re not talking about categorizing people as lonely or not. That can be done, but we’re more interested in measuring the degree of loneliness.
A number of standardized questionnaires have been developed just for that purpose. We often use one called the UCLA Loneliness Scale because that’s where it was developed. That goes back to 1980 and that’s a series of 20 questions (if you ask the whole battery of questions) that ask about various aspects of loneliness, related to loneliness, but never ask about loneliness per say, never use the terms “lonely” or “loneliness.”
Ingles: What are some of those questions?
Hawkley: Some of them are, for example, “How isolated do you feel?” “How often do you feel isolated?” “How often do you feel that you lack companionship.” “Do you feel part of a group of friends?” “Are there people you can talk to?” That’s a sampling.
Ingles: Some might say, “Well, people get lonely sometimes.” Why then should there be any real concern? What negative effects of being lonely is research showing that threatens personal peace or society?
Hawkley: Well, loneliness in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure most, if not all, people have felt it at some point in time and we think of that as being an adaptive response. Loneliness has persisted through time. We theorize that it is because it serves to motivate people to connect with others. That’s a really important part of our human existence; to be connected to others. If we lack that sense of connection, especially over a long period of time, if we’re unable to break out of it, it can have some pretty long-lasting negative effects and immediate effects, both psychologically and physiologically.
People who are lonely are clearly more likely to be depressed. They are prone to social anxiety or hostility in some cases as a reaction to feeling excluded in particular. There could be some aggressive motivation.
Physiologically there are a number of long-term effects on blood pressure for instance. We found that in older adults, if people are chronically lonely over a period of three to five years, these are the people who are going to see faster rates of blood pressure increase over that interval and also see changes in ones’ sleep. Sleep quality seems to be affected. Sleep doesn’t have the salubrious effect in a lonely person that it might in a non-lonely person. There are effects on stress hormones. There are effects on gene expression, a very fundamental level of physiology.
Ingles: What seems to be happening to the brain of someone who lingers in a state of loneliness?
Hawkley: My research has to do with the psychological and emotional effects that derive from the brain, so if you’re asking about the brain per se, I don’t specialize in that area.
I can say that work that John Cacioppo has done has looked at using something called “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging” to look at brain activity or blood activity in different parts of the brain in response to social or non-social visual stimuli, for example; images of babies versus images of pretty flowers, images of people in pain versus images of objects that are repulsive in some other way. There are some systematic differences in how the brain responds to those kinds of stimuli if a person is lonely. For example, they are much more likely to pay attention to and show activation to socially negative stimuli relative to the non-lonely person.
So it seems that the brain of the lonely person is attuned to negative social factors in the world around them. Lonely people tend to be focusing on the negative social stimuli and that’s what makes loneliness an unfortunate state, especially if it endures for a long period of time. It makes you super sensitive implicitly vigilant for what we call “socially threatening stimuli.” It’s as though people who are lonely at the same time that they want to connect are seeing the world in a way that makes it seem less safe, less inviting, more something they have to defend themselves against.
Ingles: Right. Much of the research of your colleague John Cacioppo – he has a TED Talk. Dr. Cacioppo’s point in part is that the lonelier the brain, the less the activation of the empathy parts of the brain and, as you say, it was developing what, in media studies, I learned to be called the “Scary World Syndrome,” developing a little bit more in folks who are socially isolated. Is that a fair summary of that?
Hawkley: Yeah, I think so. I think empathy requires that you get out of your own concerns and be into somebody else’s concerns and a lonely person is very much caught up in protecting themselves. If you think of how we’re wired as a human species from time in memorial as far as we know, we are connected in utero from the moment we’re born, throughout life. We need that to survive. You can imagine why that would be so traumatic if you want to call it that, so dramatic in effect for a human being to feel that the world is not a safe place, there is nobody around them that they can count on.
Ingles: I want to make one more reference to Dr. Cacioppo’s TED Talk and his research. He equates blocked social connections with states of thirst, hunger and pain and that feelings of loneliness are similar warning signs, as he puts it, “threats to our social body.” When we feel those other states; thirst hunger and pain, most seek drink, food, treatment, but I think his point is is that many experiencing loneliness do not respond in the same way they would to those other basic needs.
Hawkley: Loneliness definitely is a motivational force like hunger or thirst. People may not pay attention to that. They may not recognize it as that.
What I think happens in older age is that there is a norm that when you get older, you’re going to feel lonely. It doesn’t have to be that way, but the expectation that loneliness might be the norm leads people to ignore it or to just passively accept, tolerate and live a less fulfilling life because they either believe that this is the way it’s supposed to be or they have no energy to do anything about it, both of which are unfortunate given how much better life would be both psychologically, emotionally and in terms of health if they would continue to live socially.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Steven Asher, Professor, Duke University, Department of Psychology
Paul Ingles: When we think back to our elementary and middle school years, I think we can all think of a few kids who seemed to not have any friends and it sounds like your study has looked at this a bit and that’s probably when someone will start using this term “loner.” “That kid is a real loner.” Or “He’s just a loner.” “That’s the way Bobby is.” What do we know about what might be happening in that youngsters’ world?
Steve Asher: Well I think one thing we’ve learned a fair amount collectively, not just the research that my colleagues and I have done, but really the field more broadly, we’ve come to understand that there really are a lot of social situations for children that are really hard for kids. Even for adults, there are situations that are hard and we know that children who are lacking in skills, in social relationship skills, to handle specific situations are likely to engage in behaviors that get them into trouble with their peers.
So just to put a little meat on this idea, by social situations I mean things like; how do you join a group, how do you initiate friendship with somebody, how do you deal with the inevitable conflicts of interest that can arise in a relationship? You want to use the basketball, but I want to use the basketball too, that sort of thing. Or coping with teasing or handling a situation where your friend wants to be with somebody else rather than you that day, is going to play with somebody else. Or a situation where your friend does something that kind of hurts your feelings. We could go on and on about this. There’s got to be 40, 50, 60 different situations that we could identify as part of social life, what sometimes I called the “social tasks” of peer relationships and of friendships.
And so the child who is called a “loner,” the child who seems to have no friends and be by themselves, what we don’t know just by looking at that child in that situation is we don’t know necessarily what that child knows and doesn’t know about how you handle a wide variety of situations. But if you either go about systematically observing kids in different situations or you interview kids using what psychologists call “hypothetical situations” where you describe a situation and you ask the child, “What would you do in this situation?” what you often find is that children will exhibit behaviors that are clearly going to get them in trouble with their peers. Probably at the top of the list is aggression; physical aggression, verbal aggression, what Nicki Crick referred to in her work as “relational aggression,” the mean girls or mean boys kind of phenomenon.
This range of aggressive behavior is, by and large, for children the kiss of death with regard to being liked and trusted and accepted by other children, but underlying those aggressive behaviors is often what you might think of as certain kinds of social skill deficits; not knowing how to deal with conflict, not knowing how to cope when somebody teases you. Maybe they don’t even mean anything by it other than just being playful.
One of my colleagues at Duke University has done wonderful work on how children who are aggressive often over-read hostile intent in others even when they’re not meaning to be hurtful. Maybe it was an accident that they bumped into you on the lunch line and you spilled your milk all over yourself.
So the ability to read cues, to understand what you do in different situations is really very, very important and underlies the surface impression you have of somebody as a loner.
Ingles: Well, and as to what to do about it, it seems like there are two schools of thought or maybe a combination of these schools of thought for parents.
I haven’t been a parent. I’ve helped raise kids from time to time in different circumstances, but I always to clarify that.
To me, the parents say either “oh, they’re on the playground, they’re going to figure it out for themselves” or there is the added arena where parents will evaluate and ask questions about the day at school and trying to get into that world so that they can be the sounding board for those situations. Maybe it’s just obvious that both are approaches that have to be employed to help kids learn what they need to learn?
Asher: Yes, I think that’s right and I think it’s hard for parents to know when and how much to talk with kids about these things. Parents often times don’t want to be intrusive in children’s lives, but there are children who, for one reason or another, don’t get it if you know what I mean. They’re in situations where they really don’t know how to cope and how to handle certain things.
And actually, I think all of us, even as adults, there are situations that are very hard for us, everybody. If you and I sat down and we filled out some survey about 50 situations, how good am I at handling these situations, I’m sure you and I would have some of the 50 situations. We would go, “Gee, that’s a tough one for me. I don’t actually know how to handle that when it happens.”
I think for some kids there’s just a range. Another one of my colleagues at Duke, Martha Putallaz did wonderful work on how children go about entering a group and one of the things that she found was that children who are kind of good at taking the frame of reference of the other kids and slowly easing their way in do much better than children who ignore what’s going on in the interaction and just basically try to barge in you might say without being considerate of what the children are engaged in, who they’re trying to join. It’s a simple understanding and you would think all kids would have that kind of basic perspective-taking skill, but they don’t necessarily have it and they do need some help, some scaffolding if you will by either teachers or parents or sometimes by peers in how to handle certain situations.
Ingles: In this topic of loneliness we’re trying to focus on here, what might parents want to look for as behavioral signs that their kids might be struggling with loneliness that they might be able to work on at home?
Asher: Well I think parents usually do recognize when their children are quite sad and don’t seem to be taking pleasure in things and will tell you that they don’t have any friends. If you talk to a child and the child says, “Gee, actually I don’t have any friends.” So I think it’s kind of a mixture of both reading the child’s emotions, but also talking to children about how things are going in school, do they like going to school.
Teachers are great resources for parents to talk to if they have some concerns. Sometimes actually teachers can be very reassuring to parents. Parents, we all worry about our kids. Parents sometimes may worry about something that isn’t even that big of a problem from the teachers’ point of view. A parent may see a child who’s a little bossy and be concerned about that and the teacher will say, “Oh yeah, sometimes your child is a little bossy, but gosh, compared to other kids, it’s not a big problem let me tell you.” So I think I would just encourage parents to talk with teachers if they have concerns as well as talking to their child about this.
I think one thing parents need to be really alert to is, is their child being actually overtly victimized or bullied by other kids because if there’s any one thing I think I would say that is incredibly hurtful to children, it’s being the victim of bullying by other kids.
Ingles: Well and then in that situation, it’s really hard to turn that around, but is it a cliché to guess that kids that are prone to fighting or being bullies even are only seeing fighting or power politics in their own homes and then bringing that model to school or is it more nuanced than that? It’s like the first opportunity to grow a circle of empathy outside of the fact that this kid is having problems?
Asher: Yes, I think parents are playing an important role here as models of behavior, so if parents themselves use highly coercive parenting strategies; lots of physical punishment, lots of authoritarian “do this,” “do that” without a lot of reasoning, then we do know – lots of good work has been done on this, (not by me by the way, but by many other people in the field) that demonstrates that parents who engage in a high degree of coercion in their parenting practices are more likely to have children who do this with peers and these children typically, not always, can become highly disliked by other children.
Gerald Patterson in particular and others, his colleagues, have done fine work mapping out this developmental trajectory of early coercive parenting practices; children learning that they need to be coercive back even to somehow get their needs met and then try to gap those behaviors in the peer group coming to be disliked by peers. If you’re disliked by the mainstream peer group, who do you become friends with? Well, you’re more likely to become friends with other children who are not so well liked and are kind of coercive or aggressive in their behavior and then you get a kind of peer socialization that takes place.
There’s a scholar named Tom Dishion who’s done excellent research demonstrating the way in which aggressive kids friends can actually further socialize anti-social behavior.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Bella DePaulo, Visiting Professor, University of
California at Santa Barbara, author of “Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped,
Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.”
Paul Ingles: Dr. Bella DePaulo is an author and visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Dr. DePaulo, you’ve also authored a blog called “The Happy Loner” that begins: “Loners get a bad rap. Loner is the label we affix to criminals, outcasts and just about everyone else we find scary or unsettling.”
Then you quote author Anneli Rufus who wrote a different take that a loner is quote “someone who prefers to be alone” which you say is different from those who remain on the outside feeling isolated but desperately want to be on the inside. Help me understand the distinction. It sounds to me like you accept the more troubling definition of loner, but just want to make room for Loner 2.0 or Loner B who just prefers to be alone. Is that fair?
Bella DePaulo: Yes. Well, Anneli Rufus says that a loner is someone who prefers to be alone, so that’s her central basic definition and she thinks that when we call these serial killers “loners” and we affix that kind of dark, menacing meaning to loner, we’re distorting the true meaning of loner.
But let me say that whether being alone, living alone is a good or bad thing depends on how you got there. So if you got there because you want it and you love it and you crave it, that’s great. If you got there because, let’s say a spouse died, that’s more difficult although some people find that once a spouse dies, they come into their own in their own space and time.
The real problematic person living alone is the one who has been rejected, who has been ostracized, particularly if they’ve been chronically ostracized. I think that can be an ingredient to real deep anger and the potential for violence.
Ingles: So let’s say your “Loner B” in our little construct here, you prefer to be alone. Is it valuable to be even concerned about the claims of researchers that they might be at risk of becoming “Loner A” like distrustful of society or prone to feeling rejected? Is it valuable, if you choose to be alone, to be aware of your place on the continuum and have an awareness of this conversation?
DePaulo: I suppose so, but you know what’s really interesting? There’s a whole cottage industry of loneliness. If you went on Google and typed “loneliness,” you’d probably get tens of thousands of returns and yet the kind of research that would look at whether people have chosen to be alone or not is strikingly missing. So we really don’t know if the people who choose to be alone, who savor their solitude, who get great creative work done, get great restorative benefits, we don’t know if they are prone to some of the same negative risks that we’ve heard about so often in the general literature on loneliness. We just don’t know. That’s my scientific answer.
Ingles: Okay and do you have another answer?
DePaulo: Yes, I wonder about it. Imagine if we tried to force everyone to live with other people because we think that would somehow cure loneliness. Would it really? I think especially about the change over time and how older people live. It used to be that older people, say if a spouse died, they would almost automatically end up living with other people, often their grown children. Now that older people have Social Security and other ways of actually buying their own independence, more and more of them are choosing to live alone and they’re certainly choosing to stay outside of institutions if they can possibly afford it and so it seems like people are making a choice and so I think we should be cautious about demonizing people who live alone or thinking: you poor thing. Your life is going to be nasty, brutish and short because they’ve chosen this. Many people who live alone could find other people to live with, but that’s not what they want to do.
Ingles: Well let’s see, let me go here with this then; one of your books is entitled Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After, so let me look at the first half of that title to start because it sounds like it’s kind of what we were talking about here. It sounds like that you’re citing a societal preference for coupling.
DePaulo: Yes, absolutely.
Ingles: Are you suggesting that by stereotyping, stigmatizing and ignoring signals that society could be amplifying feelings of loneliness?
DePaulo: Yes, it is and ironically, what it could also be doing is pushing people to marry who really don’t feel like it’s right for them and what happens then is you have people who end up lonelier than they would have been because they’re marrying because they think they should marry, because they think it’s the only legitimate, respected, celebrated option and so then they end up with what is probably the most painful kind of loneliness; the loneliness you experience when there is someone lying there right beside you.
Ingles: What would you call on society to do for its part in quelling loneliness brought on in part by those attitudes about singles? I mean if someone listening says, “Oh yeah, I guess I have thought that about singles,” what would you suggest they change in their behavior or their attitude that might tone it down a little bit?
DePaulo: I think they should realize that there are so many ways to live in contemporary American society. That’s one of the joys of living in this time and place.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Robert Thomson, LPCC, Therapist, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Robert Thomson: I think one of the things that we know that is really useful to anyone who’s suffering is to be able to sit with another human being who is listening and attending and caring and talk about those things.
Freud called therapy “the talking cure.” He had people say, well, if you just sit down and talk about things, how can that be useful? Well, we find that it’s incredibly useful because we’re not alone anymore. Somebody is attending, somebody is listening, somebody is caring.
It’s in that relationship where we begin to feel solid, where we begin to feel I am okay, I’m worthwhile and once I know that about myself and I understand how I got to feel the other way (because now it’s a conscious process), now I can take that knowledge and I can go out into the world and begin to practice trying new things in a different way.
Just like any of us, trying something new, we’re not going to be very skilled at it at first. We’re going to make a lot of errors, but if we don’t give up and we keep trying, we get better and eventually we become very adept at doing it.
Ingles: Bob Thomson, why isn’t it easier to unload truths on more of our friends and family. Why is this so difficult?
Thomson: The truth is an interesting thing. When we talk about truth, we have to ask “whose truth” because everybody has a little bit different sense of what truth is.
If I, as a child, am presenting to you and you’re my father, a sense of what my truth is and you tell me that that’s not right, I’m going to be kind of confused. I’m going to wonder if I’m thinking straight. If you resonate with me and you make it right for me by putting into words exactly what my feelings are, I’m going to feel less confused. I’m going to feel more solid like I really do know what I’m talking about because this person gets me.
And then if I’m really lucky, they’re going to tell me their truth and it’s probably going to be a little bit different. We’re going to find some way in that discussion to merge those two together and we both grow.
Ingles: Can you talk more about that “make it right” business? You used the term “make it right.” I want to make sure people understand what that means in conversation with people.
Thomson: Yes, this I think is a good question. Each of us looks onto the world through our own window. We understand the world from our own perspective, which is very unique.
So when another person articulates in a way that we begin to shake our heads yes, that’s exactly how I feel, they’re making it right for us. They are understanding exactly how we feel, how we think, what’s going on with us because what they’re saying makes us shake our heads yes, that’s right.
If we start shaking our heads no, then we know they’re making it wrong and this usually happens when a person begins to talk about their own perspective which is very different from the others. The other person begins to shake their head no. They’re making it wrong.
Ingles: So this is pretty common in conversation among friends I would say or family members, particularly when – let’s use a parent and an adolescent, a parent hearing something from an adolescent instinctively wants to say, “That’s just not right. That’s wrong. You’re wrong about that.” That’s missing the step of trying to make it right first and then turning it around after that to give the counterpoint?
Thomson: Yes, exactly. What we see happen all the time is one person presents their world view and the other person experiences their world view as no, that’s not the way it is because it’s different for them and we see people kind of go back and forth bantering about whose truth is the most valued.
If they knew how to take that first step and really articulate clearly what it must be like in the other person’s world, until that person says, “Yes, you really do understand me,” what happens is that the defensiveness begins to go down. Once we feel understood, we don’t have to defend it because we know that the other person understands us. Then we’re much more likely to be able to listen to the other person’s truth and then we have a better chance of moving back towards the middle where we combine these two different ways of looking at the world into something that will be manageable for both.
Ingles: So could we role-play this just for a second so people can hear what this sounds like? If I am the lonely friend, I am the one who says, “I’m just really afraid to be out there. I don’t want to date or meet people. I’m fine by myself. I think I’m just going to be alone for the rest of my life really.” And then you’re the friend or loved one who’s hearing that. Where might it go from there?
Thomson: So if I made that right, I might say, “You’re pretty convinced that there is really no hope for you to find somebody who you can be with. You’ve come to the conclusion that you’re going to be alone and yet I can hear in your voice that that’s disappointing to you and that you would like to find somebody. It’s not like you’re an introvert who says, ‘I really don’t need a whole lot of other people. I’m more comfortable by myself.’ I hear a conclusion that you’ve arrived at that says, ‘I think I’m just going to be alone, but I wish I didn’t have to be.’”
Ingles: And then if you have characterized it correctly, then there is a connection, if it’s a little bit off, the other person (me in this case) has a chance to clarify?
Thomson: Exactly. If we completely miss it, the person will look at us like we’ve got three heads and say, “No, not like that. Let me tell you again,” and they’ll tell us again. They’ll just correct us, but when we get it right, they begin to shake their head up and down yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. We’re making it right and I think it’s at that point that we have an opportunity to share another point of view. The way I think about it is that yes, there are difficulties in meeting a person who is a good match for you, but there’s a whole world full of wonderful people and if you are determined that you want to find that person, you will find them.
I always think of Henry Ford’s statement. He said, “Whether you say you can or you can’t, you’re right.” So if we believe that we can’t, then of course we can’t.