Loneliness has become an epidemic in the U.S. on par with obesity. The elderly population is the most affected, but loneliness can occur at any age.
Loneliness is toxic: a 75-year longitudinal study (a study that follows subjects for many years) found that lonely people not only report the lowest levels of happiness, but are also more likely to suffer from psychological and physical ailments. These include depression, cognitive decline, and heart disease. The evolutionary mechanisms are obvious: to stray from one’s tribe in a preliterate context would have been to risk one’s survival. What is truly amazing is that today, scientists have identified specific parts of your DNA which correspond to loneliness.
How anything as seemingly abstract as “loneliness” could have a genetic basis is hard to imagine. But genetic science is amazing stuff. An ambitious 2018 study was able to identify 15 specific trait loci (specific sections of you DNA) for loneliness.
What does this mean? The more of the 15 loneliness genes that you have, the more predisposed to loneliness you may be. But “predisposed” does not mean “condemned” – it just means “more likely to experience.” This is a very important point because knowing about your genetic predisposition to certain conditions can give you extra motivation to avoid them. For example, if you knew you had traits for alcoholism, you might choose to be a teetotaler.
When you cross-reference the data, there is co-morbidity (correlation of illnesses) between loneliness, depression, neuroticism, and conditions like obesity.
This is easy to imagine in the case of obesity, because those who suffer from being significantly overweight may engage less in social activities. For example, if you’ve put on 50 extra pounds, you might stop showing up to yoga class. There are also countless other genes that play into the loneliness equation. These could relate to your sociability, your ability to withstand stress (and avoid hyper-vigilance), your personality…and many other traits. The aforementioned study also found 6-15 loci associated with social activities like going to the gym or participating in a religious group. These traits were considered distinct from the 15 loci for loneliness, but for obvious reasons, traits for sociability share common ground with traits for loneliness. So, it’s not really as simple as saying that if you have a high number of genes for loneliness, you’ll suffer from the condition.
This question comes back to the nature vs. nurture dynamic. Even if you inherit genes for loneliness, you may never experience it. Similarly, a person with none of the traits for loneliness might still experience the condition. DNA analysis allows us to isolate a predisposition in your genetic makeup. This is not a 1:1 cause-and-effect relationship. Coming back to the example of alcoholism, if you had every identifiable trait for alcoholism but never took a drink, would you be an alcoholic?
Isolation is an objective measure of how much social contact you have.
Loneliness is the subjective feeling of not being connected to other humans.
You can be isolated, but not feel lonely. Many people like the calm reflection that comes with “Me Time”. You can also feel lonely while not being isolated. In fact, feeling lonely in a big city – where you are surrounded by millions of people but feel disconnected from all of them – can be an alienating and traumatic state to be in.
One study of loneliness explains:
As a social species, humans rely on a safe, secure social surround to survive and thrive. Perceptions of social isolation, or loneliness, increase vigilance for threat and heighten feelings of vulnerability while also raising the desire to reconnect. Implicit hyper-vigilance for social threat alters psychological processes that influence physiological functioning, diminish sleep quality, and increase morbidity and mortality.
What is meant by “implicit hyper-vigilance” is that if you’re not with your “tribe” (in the preliterate evolutionary context), you have to constantly watch your back. That state of hypervigilance can manifest as PTSD among combat veterans. Spending long periods of time in a heightened state of alert is well known to tax your physical health.
Loneliness can be experienced as a piercing, existential pain, or a more generalized, longer-lasting feeling of disconnection. Either way, it can be very painful. In the extreme, loneliness can drive people to suicide. If you are struggling with loneliness, a good place to start is 15 Things to Do If You’re Feeling Lonely from the U.K. Mental Health Foundation. You’ll find some good helpful links there, as well.
If you’re worried about loneliness, you can also take advantage of the latest genetic science.
Genomelink can tell you if you have a specific predisposition for loneliness. This can be helpful as you make decisions in life and try to minimize your exposure to situations that might trigger this condition.