Today on Think, Krys Boyd spoke with psychologist Dr. Guy Winch about why we sometimes feel lonely. As it turns out, our brains developed the ability to be lonesome as a form of protection.
"The idea is that when we were hunter-gatherers, the price of being excluded from our tribes was death really, because we couldn't survive alone out in the wilderness," he said. "And so we developed this early-warning mechanism to alert us about the dangers of loneliness, and that is rejection."
That's why when we feel rejected, we long to re-establish connections with others.
"That's one of the reasons we experience even small rejections as extremely painful - because they really played an evolutionary role in helping us notice loneliness and helping us avoid what happens when we're not fully connected to the members of our tribes."
Dr. Winch says his patients disclose a lot of personal and perhaps embarrassing details in sessions but are hesitant to admit they’re lonely. The thing is, loneliness isn’t about the reality of their lives, Winch says, and people shouldn’t be so ashamed. Feeling lonely is largely a problem of perception, he says.
Here are three thoughts familiar to a lonely person that aren’t true:
1. My friends who I’m distant from don’t want to see me.
“Your mind can lead you to believe that people care about you much less than they actually do,” Winch says.
Often, lonely people don’t realize the negative vibes they’ve been giving off as they struggle, which could cause loved ones to stop reaching out. Winch recommends sending positive messages out, just to say hi or to try and make plans. Winch endorses resigning oneself to the use of emoji, for example, to make sure the missives come across in an upbeat light. Especially when the sender isn’t feeling so great.
“We have to fake it at first,” he says.
2. If I were just married/more interesting/engaging/attractive, I could get out of this slump.
The lonely person is no expert on his or her worth and value. Isolation is a cycle: first circumstance puts you by yourself for a while, then you become irrational. Rejection feels more painful when one is already lonely; positive validation is easily dismissed. Also, a relationship – even marriage – does not solve loneliness. In fact, Winch says, married people feel lonely more often than single people.
3. I can survive just fine and still be lonely.
“Loneliness suppresses the function of our immune system,” Winch says. It increases the likelihood of an early death by 14 percent. And don't bother looking for help on Facebook. Winch advises his patients to take breaks from social media, which creates false expectation for happiness. Instead, Winch says, find an in-person way to share your interests and develop good habits, like a running club.
There's plenty more advice for the lonely in the podcast of today's show.