Tag Archives: loneliness

Your lack of sleep might be the reason why you’re lonely

A new study has found that sleep-deprived individuals are less likely to engage with others, and are more likely to feel lonely, exhibiting symptoms similar to social anxiety.

They say that no man is an island — and that seems to hold true. Social people tend to be happier and healthier, but quite often, social interactions tend to have a snowball effect: if you’re more social, you’re more likely to meet more people and be even more social. Meanwhile, a lack of social interaction can make you even more socially unattractive. In a new study, researchers have found that sleep — or rather, sleep deprivation — might be a key part of that effect.

“We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers,” said study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.

In the first part of the study, Walker and colleagues showed 18 sleep-deprived people video clips of strangers walking toward them, scanning their brains during this process. They found that the videos activated neural networks associated with social repulsion (these networks are typically triggered when someone invades our personal spaces). So, essentially, sleep loss makes us more likely to reject social interaction and maybe even feel threatened by it.

“The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss,” Walker added. “That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.”

Then, in the second part of the study, 1,000 observers were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace. They were shown videos of the sleep-deprived participants and asked to rate how lonely they seemed and how likely they would be to interact with them. Time and time again, sleep-deprived participants were seen as less socially desirable and lonelier. But this is where it gets even more interesting: this whole process seemed to be contagious.

When researchers asked the observers to rate their own levels of loneliness, they reported feeling significantly more alienated after watching only a 60-second clip of a lonely person.

The bottom line is that sleep deprivation can stir up a vicious cycle of social alienation while getting a good night’s sleep can do wonders for your social life.

“This all bodes well if you sleep the necessary seven to nine hours a night, but not so well if you continue to short-change your sleep,” Walker said. “On a positive note, just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you,” Walker said.

Several nations are now seeing a ‘loneliness epidemic‘ as a threat to society’s well-being as more and more people seem to be suffering from chronic loneliness. The UK has even appointed a loneliness minister.

The study was published in Nature Communications.

The UK appoints a Minister of Loneliness

The United Kingdom wants to address a very prevalent, but rarely discussed issue in the modern world: loneliness.

Loneliness often affects the elderly or physically impaired, but anyone can suffer from it — and many people do. Image Credits: Huy Phan.

It’s often in the back of our heads, but rarely on our tongues. With the advent of technology, the internet, and ever-busier lifestyles, people have become increasingly isolated, even as they’re constantly connected to the world. It’s an ironic situation, but one which isn’t tackled nearly enough: the world is getting lonelier.

Loneliness is a complex and unpleasant emotional state, often associated with anxiety or depression. The causes of loneliness are complex and varied. Chronic loneliness can be a serious, life-threatening health condition, with several studies showing that it increases the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, as well as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Loneliness is a serious problem, and the UK wants to start tackling it properly.

Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced the assignment of a new minister for loneliness, who would work with businesses and charities to create a strategy to tackle these issues.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,” May said in a statement.

The work is the brainchild of Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament who was fatally shot and stabbed in 2016 by a 52-year-old with links to US-based neo-Nazi groups; the person shouted “Britain First” as he carried out his attack.

Jo Cox celebrated her constituency’s ethnic diversity, while highlighting the economic challenges facing the community. Image credits: Garry Knight.

Cox recognized the acute dangers posed by loneliness in modern society, and she was a doer. She established the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which made the recommendations implemented today by the British government. This is the best way not only to respect her legacy but also to ensure that her work wasn’t in vain. Say what you will about Britain and its recent woes, but there’s one thing the country never lacked for: motivated, capable people who wanted to improve the livelihood of others.

The UK isn’t the only country suffering from loneliness. It’s estimated that approximately 60 million people in the United States, or 20% of the total population, feel lonely. Another study found that 12% of Americans have no one with whom to spend free time or to discuss important matters — and the figure seems to be slowly growing in time. Modern life appears to be making us isolated and lonely, but it needn’t be that way. Loneliness shouldn’t be mistaken for solitude, which is a transient and sometimes desirable state which often has positive effects.


Loneliness might become a deadlier public health threat than obesity, researchers warn

Loneliness and social isolation are poised to become a public health threat with greater scope and more devastating effects that more widely debated issues such as obesity, the results of two meta-studies show.

Piano player.

Image credits Robert Pastryk.

More Americans are living alone than ever before. Declining rates of marriage, coupled with higher chances for divorce and a general drop in the number of children all play a part. Which doesn’t really sound like a problem — I mean hey, I’m a pretty self-sufficient guy and some of you reading this probably are so, too. But consider that humans are social animals. The need for others is hard-wired into us, a drive to belong, to be part of the social group. Taking a day or a few off to disconnect and relax is one thing. Struggling to cope in the absence of a social support network is a very different matter.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need – crucial to both well-being and survival,” says Brigham Young University psychologist and first author of the paper, Julianne Holt-Lunstad.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.”

This weekend, Holt-Lunstad attended the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association where she presented the results of two large-scale meta-analyses peering into the relationship between loneliness and premature mortality. The data for these meta-studies have been gathered over the past several decades. The first, published back in 2010, looked at 148 studies (totaling 308,849 participants) and looked into issues such as health status, social relationships, pre-existing conditions and causes of mortality.

From this data, Holt-Lundstad and her colleagues were able to quantify a life expectancy difference between socially isolated people and individuals with more robust social relationships. The latter, their data shows, were 50% more likely to live for longer than their more isolated counterparts — showing just how crucial our social lives can be for our life expectancy. The effect “is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity),” the paper reads.

In the second meta-study, which worked with papers from 1980 to 2014, Holt-Lunstad and her team delved deeper into the relationship between loneliness, social isolation, living alone, and death rates. Their results — based on over 3.4 million people from Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia — showed that all three factors corresponded to an increased likelihood of mortality of between 26% to 32% percent.

All of this doesn’t tie in favorably with present conditions at all.

“Affluent nations have the highest rates of individuals living alone since census data collection began and also likely have the highest rates in human history, with those rates projected to increase,” the researchers write.

“With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase,” says Holt-Lunstad. “Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

Over a quarter of Americans were living alone in 2014 according to a Pew Research Centre report — and that percentage has likely only increased up to today. This trend is rapidly taking hold in other developed and developing countries, such as the UK or India. That’s why Holt-Lunstad believes we need to work together and address the looming public health threat of loneliness. Possible solutions would be teaching social skills in school or adding social ‘health’ on doctors’ check-up list.

But in the meantime, we should all take care to nurture the relationships we do have and to try to improve their quality by building intimacy with those around us. So when you’re feeling lonely, give your friends or family a call. Go out for a drink, or just to hang out. It will make you live longer and better.

The research was presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, and can be read here and here.


Illustration: niemer.deviantart.com

People prefer getting an electric shock than being left alone with their thoughts

Illustration: niemer.deviantart.com

Illustration: niemer.deviantart.com

Here’s a weird study. A group of psychologists at University of Virginia introduced men and women alone in a room for fifteen minutes with nothing to distract them. No TV, no phone, no internet, no books, nothing but their thoughts… and a zapping device that sent a mild electric shock. Conclusion: most people would rather kill their time receiving electrical shocks than being left alone with their thoughts. It’s the kind of study that shocks you (sorry), because it tells an ordinary truth – we’re scared of being left alone with ourselves because people have become so disconnected with their inner selves, that they would gladly take on any distraction as long as it spares them the misery of confronting themselves.

Ok, so they were just curious. I’d zap myself too if I was alone in a room with only a zap button. Common, who wouldn’t? In the researchers’ defense, however, the study took the necessary precaution of phasing curiosity out by zapping each participant before they entered the room of solitary doom. So, each of the students involved in the study knew beforehand what happened if they got electrocuted by the device containing a 9 V battery. And they didn’t do this once. On average, participants received electrical shocks seven times. One man actually gave himself 190 electric shocks over a period of 15 minutes. Serious issues.

Wait, there’s more. Apparently, men have bigger issues with themselves than women. Out of 24 women, only six decided to shock themselves, but 12 out of the 18 thought they couldn’t miss it. The guy who zapped himself 190 times was only counted once, just so you know. The researchers hypothesize that men are more willing to take risks for the sake of a intense and complex experiences than women. Or they’re just stupid.

The results are a bit limited however. The sample size is really low, and all the people involved in the study are students at University of Virginia. There are also some psychological caveats that need to be factored out somehow, which researchers didn’t do. For instance, the participants knew they were watched, and this might have introduced unnecessary psychological stress. Heck, most of the participants would have rather masturbated probably than become electrocuted, which also defeats the purpose of being alone with your thoughts, but alas. I would love to see the results of a replicated study with a far broader sample size and demographic.

The findings appeared in the journal Science.