As taboo as it may be to talk about, the experience of loneliness is totally universal. University of Chicago-based researcher John Cacioppo explains, “We’re trying to educate the public about this, to say that loneliness isn’t something that only certain individuals have. It’s something we all have, we can all fall into, and nearly all of us experience at some point in our lives.”
So why do we feel lonely? According to Cacioppo, it’s for survival: “Loneliness is a mechanism that’s in place because we need, as a social species, to be able to identify when our connections with others for mutual aid and protection are being threatened or absent. If there’s no connection, there could be mortal consequences. Those are threats to our survival and reproductive success.” We’re hard-wired to feel loneliness; it runs deep into our genes, and for good reason.
However, long-term loneliness can damage your relationships, so it’s important to keep tabs on it. Because loneliness necessarily makes us turn inward, Caciopoo explains: “Completely unbeknownst to you, your brain is focusing more on self-preservation than the preservation of those around you. This, in turn, can make you less pleasant to be around.”
Another reason to smile at a stranger today.
You can read Cacioppo’s full interview with the NSF here.