Human beings are social animals and our biological, psychological, and social systems evolved to thrive in collaborative networks of people. We depend on others for survival. Being lonely not only feels nasty but also makes you depressed which ultimately affects you in your health. The feeling of loneliness has helped humans to survive since ages.
John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago said,
“We have survived as a species not because we’re fast or strong or have natural weapons in our fingertips, but because of social protection. Our strength is our ability to communicate and work together.”
As social animals, we survived because we form bonds, which provide mutual aid. Humans don’t do well if they’re alone. In the past, your survival depended on how socially connected you are. We started to develop emotions towards people by understanding the needs of the other. We changed our behavior to satisfy the other person and worked towards acceptance in a social group, as groups meant survival. Those excluded from social groups were bound to fall. This is called social pain because you have done something wrong and has been expelled from the society which is why rejection and denial hurt so much, even today.
Loneliness is a purely instinctive feeling, which is not the same as being alone. Just because you are in a crowded room full of people doesn’t mean you will be happy and have a good time. You cannot catch with the conversation because you are lonely at that moment. The feeling of loneliness not only goes with the people who lack social interactions. It can affect anyone irrespective of their financial or social status because humans are wired to feel lonely as a part of evolution.
Cacioppo proposes that the root of social ties lies in their opposite, the feeling of loneliness. According to his theory, the pain of being alone motivates us to seek the safety of companionship, which in turn benefits the species by encouraging group cooperation and protection. Loneliness persists because it provides an essential evolutionary benefit for social animals. Like thirst, hunger or pain, loneliness is an aversive state that animals seek to resolve, improving their long-term survival.
This is ironic that we live in the most socially connected times still most people have felt lonely at some time. Probably, this is because the world is changing and people have become less dependent on each for their livelihood. Humans move to other cities for better job opportunities. We have transformed and shifted our choices more into the internet and social media for pleasure than connecting to people in person which led to disconnection in real life. We have become so busy that we give us much time to education, work and our own personal lives which created an imbalance. This is the primary reason for most of the people feeling lonely at times as they had cut out from friends and social circles.
Even though loneliness may have been adaptive in the past, it can be harmful in the 21st century. Studies on lonely people show are more aggressive, more sleep-deprived and more likely to see unfamiliar people in a bad light, making it hard to operate in a society where we are surrounded all day by people we don’t know. Cacioppo said,
“You push people away out of fear of being again threatened in social situations.”
The lonelier someone is, the more this effect is seen. You stop trusting people in self-defense, and neutral reactions start getting perceived as negative ones. Moreover, when you are lonely, you start getting more receptive to social signals but are more incorrectly interpreted. Basically, you become more pessimistic.
The way loneliness affects our bodies suggests how it may have been protective in the past but is no longer is. The feeling of loneliness traps you in an unending vicious cycle, where you trust others lesser, and start avoiding unnecessary human contact. This, in turn, makes you long for social support but you have nowhere to go. There is no easy solution to this. It’s important to realize if there is something wrong with your behavior or actions and take the necessary steps to improve it. Eventually, you need to push yourself out of this and start making interactions with people to connect with them.