Most people were either stunned or amused when British prime minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness a few months ago, acknowledging that, “for far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” Yet, this should not have come as a surprise or a joke. In study after study, loneliness has been described as a growing public health threat.
Over the past decade, surveys have shown an unprecedented increase in the prevalence of loneliness, not just in the UK but also the US, where more than a third of the adults say they feel lonely. Persons of every age are vulnerable, but especially the young and the very old. Individuals with serious physical and mental illnesses are most susceptible. For example, rates of self-reported loneliness are as high as 80% among individuals with schizophrenia.
Research has shown that loneliness is associated with worse health, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, suicide, and dementia. The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, recently described loneliness as an epidemic, and a major public health concern. He has likened the effect of unrelieved loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s a bigger risk factor for premature death, he says, than obesity.
I propose that the solution for loneliness doesn’t lie far beyond us but is actually close at hand. It involves fostering wisdom as a personality trait.
What exactly is loneliness? Does it mean simply to be alone or socially isolated? In a word, no. My own research has found that feelings of loneliness do not differ between people who live alone and those who live with someone else. Indeed, someone living in a college dorm or a retirement community with 200 others may feel lonely while another person living alone in a cave can feel connected with the rest of the world and its teeming billions.
Scientifically, loneliness is defined as a feeling of distress produced by the perception that one’s social needs are not being met. Implicit in this definition is the recognition that loneliness is the subjective perception of social isolation, and not an objective lack of social support.
Why do people feel lonely? That feeling is associated with unhelpful cognitive processes like increased vigilance for social threat, expectations of negative social interactions, and a memory bias favoring unpleasant over pleasant social experiences. In other words, if you feel alone, you tend to expect to remain alone. You avoid interactions with others to prevent expected rejection. Lonely persons experience enduring and recurring feelings of stress, pessimism, hostility, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
I am a geriatric neuropsychiatrist. I have spent much of my career studying schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in older adults. In recent years, I have been increasingly fascinated by research on wisdom.
To many people wisdom is a fuzzy concept rooted in religion and philosophy. Yet, since the 1970s, there has been a growing amount of scientific research on wisdom. My own studies show that wisdom is a complex human trait (pdf) based in distinct regions of the brain.
Fundamentally, wisdom consists of several specific components: control over emotions; pro-social attitudes and behaviors (empathy, compassion); self-reflection; ability to make good decisions; acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity; and spirituality. These components of wisdom are common to ancient religious scriptures and to modern societies. Possessing wisdom benefits both the person and the society. Human wisdom may have evolutionary value for the long lifespan that homo sapiens enjoy. (Did you know that the word homo sapiens means “a wise man”?)
But what does wisdom have to do with loneliness? I consider wisdom a remedy for loneliness. Think about how all the components of wisdom I listed above may relate to the processes that underlie loneliness. If you can control your emotions, you would not feel distressing levels of anxiety or fear. Through greater empathy and compassion comes improved understanding of other people’s emotions, thereby reducing perceptions of others as a threat. Self-reflection confirms positive feelings and can help rectify negative ones. Spirituality allows you to recognize that you are part of a much larger story and universe, one in which you are accepted and accepting of others.
Greater wisdom is associated with greater happiness, health, and well-being, which would naturally reduce the depression and anxiety associated with loneliness.
Can we increase someone’s level of wisdom? Yes, we can. Research has shown that appropriately designed psychotherapy can promote control over emotions, empathy, compassion, and spirituality. In real life, wise parents, grandparents, and mentors teach the young to control their emotions and promote compassion and empathy, thereby increasing awareness of others’ perspectives and values.
It should be no different in schools, where education must not be limited to basic skills like the “three R’s”: reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also encompass broader and deeper lessons that improve the human psyche by overcoming negative feelings and thoughts. Wise people at any age don’t feel lonely.
Loneliness might seem like an environmentally induced problem, a dilemma to be addressed through greater outside support. Nothing is farther from truth. Loneliness is an internal problem. It must be addressed by reflecting upon and controlling emotions, understanding others, and replacing anxiety with well-being. Loneliness is a poison to the body and soul, toxic to a happy life. But it can be neutralized and conquered by a powerful antidote we all can possess: Wisdom.