We've all experienced it from time to time—loneliness is an inevitable part of the human experience. In many ways, it's a fundamental part of humanity—and reminds us that we truly need one another. Some, however, suffer from chronic loneliness, which can lead to a great deal of physical and mental anguish. But, with well over 7 billion people on the planet, how are we all still so lonely?
In 2011, an extensive study was conducted on 217 primate species and their patterns of social and communal living. The study found that a significant shift in "social behaviour occurred when primates switched from being mainly active at night to being more active during the day". Before this shift, primates were solitary creatures, and took to hunting and foraging in the night under cloak of darkness.
With more land and plant food made available to them after the extinction of dinosaurs, mammals grew to be formidable opponents. Some research also suggests that the rise in Earth's atmospheric oxygen levels could have increased mammal size, ushering in a new era of predators. Whatever the driving factor behind the transition to daytime activity—be it food, land, environment, or newfound safety—early primates were now incredibly vulnerable to attack by new predators they had otherwise avoided in the dark. Their solution was to band together as a means of self-preservation; and thus began the long road to civilisation as we know it.
The same study on primate behaviour concluded that humans are the only species of primates capable of navigating a myriad of social settings. "Throughout history, humans have lived in monogamous and polygamous societies; in nuclear families and extended family groups"—proving our immense and unmatched flexibility. It would seem their findings suggest that "more brain power is needed for groups that have a more complicated social life", so pat yourself on the back, you smart cookie—you deserve it.
But, intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said "it is only with the highest degree of intelligence that suffering reaches its supreme point." So, whether you're an overthinker or not, it's not exactly comforting to know that no creature has ever suffered on this planet more than us. Unless you believe we've been visited by aliens, that is.
A recent MIT study found that we crave social interaction in the same region of the brain where we crave food—which has a plethora of implications. Firstly, it indicates that social interactions are, as we imagined, tied closely with survival—or rather, much like food, they sustain us. It also signals how we have evolved in such a way that social interactions have become entwined with both our mental and physical health. But, what happens when these interactions are lacking?
The need to be close to others is hardwired into us through millions of years of evolution—a facet of humanity that would be impossible to undo. So much so, that the absence of social connection "heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder." As reported by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, "loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity". This is made even more alarming when one considers just how many of us experience the crush of loneliness throughout our lives.
Our minds decode instances of social exclusion in a similar way to physical pain—and, when one considers the evidence that isolation increases the risk of premature mortality—it's hard to deny that the issue is quite literally life or death. A Pew Research Centre survey of more than 6,000 U.S. adults successfully linked "frequent loneliness to dissatisfaction with one’s family, social and community life". This may not shock you to learn, but loneliness can occur even when you're surrounded by people—it's perceived isolation that matters most.
What's more, evidence suggests that loneliness is linked "with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life." Loneliness increases the "risk of stroke or the development of coronary heart disease" by 30 percent and dementia by 40 percent. Without a doubt, both the mental and physical effects of loneliness are shocking beyond belief—and yet still we ask what can be done?
Well, it's not all as melancholic as it seems. The issue now has a great deal of research behind it, and steps are being taken to find working solutions. If you're experiencing feelings of loneliness or isolation, be sure to check out the Campaign to End Loneliness for services and support. It might even help to join a new group or community—and, if you're not one for leaving the house, there's a wealth of fun to be had online. No pressure, of course—but whenever you're ready to start meeting new people, here's a few tips we hope will help you on your way: