Why do we feel loneliness?
Not knowing who to sit with during your lunch break, a WhatsApp message that goes unanswered, a rejection of a date with friends - we all know what loneliness feels like. But why do we feel lonely? Is loneliness an emotion, a need, or a physical function? And what does this have to do with human history? I would like to answer these questions in this post today.
Loneliness – unwanted but familiar
We live in a time with seemingly endless opportunities to connect with other people. Online, offline, over the phone, a conversation or a FaceTime call. The fact that loneliness has become more common in recent decades than ever before and is in many cases chronic seems counterintuitive. But perhaps that is exactly the reason, our current way of life and the age of digital change: friendships and acquaintances are becoming more superficial, contacts are becoming more natural and are possible almost every minute of the day within a few seconds. What makes fulfilling contacts? A difficult question.
Loneliness can affect anyone. We all know that, ultimately, loneliness is not directly related to whether or not we are surrounded by other people. Finally, I can also feel alone in the presence of others, for example at a party or in a strange city where I don't know anyone. So being lonely and alone are not the same thing.
In order to understand loneliness a little better, it is helpful to take a look at human history - as is often the case when it comes to classifying the human psyche and human behavior.
What exactly is loneliness?
From the perspective of social psychology
One of the most well-known psychological models for explaining human needs and motivations is Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs .
The American psychologist arranges human needs in a pyramid, as the name of the model suggests. At the lowest level are physiological needs; these form the basis. This includes all the needs necessary to sustain human life, such as breathing, sleep, food, water and reproduction. Only when these basic needs are met can people devote themselves to the second level, security needs. This includes all aspects of life that contribute to physical and mental safety. Examples of security needs include family, health, accommodation or basic material security.
As soon as this level is largely satisfied, people feel an urge for social contacts and relationships - which brings us to the topic of loneliness. Even if social contacts (only) occupy the third level of the hierarchy of needs, they are still very important for people and indispensable for a fulfilling life. Only when our social needs are satisfied can people devote themselves to individual needs such as success, independence and freedom and ultimately strive for self-realization.
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, loneliness can be viewed as a physical function. Much like hunger and sleep make us aware of our physiological needs, loneliness makes us aware of our social needs.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, people who stayed in groups had significantly better chances of survival than those who wandered around alone. Eating enough food, staying warm and caring for offspring: all of this would have been virtually impossible on our own. Humans were dependent on their social group, and so social needs became part of our biology. If a person was excluded from the group, it often meant death. To prevent this expulsion from the group, a social pain developed. This served as a kind of warning system to get people to stop isolating behavior. The people who found the pain more disturbing and changed their behavior as a result were less likely to be expelled from the group. Those who “ignored” the pain were excluded and, in most cases, probably died.
So loneliness as a physical function helped our ancestors survive and created an advantage in natural selection. This is why rejection and loneliness still hurt us so much today.
However, the world has not remained the same and humans have also evolved. In Western culture there is an increasing focus on the individual and collectivism is becoming less important. Compared to before, people stay in significantly smaller groups. And although more and more people live next to each other in close quarters in cities, their lives are becoming increasingly isolated. The modern technology that we grow up with today contributes, among other things, to people meeting (in person) less often.
When loneliness becomes chronic
Chronic loneliness occurs gradually and usually not on purpose. There is so much to do: work, further education, household, children, and time in front of the screen to relax is also a must. The first thing that falls by the wayside is relationships. “Oh, that can be postponed.” “We can still see each other next week, other things are more important right now” . Time with friends is the most convenient thing to “sacrifice.” And before you know it, you find yourself feeling isolated and longing for close relationships. But adults often find it difficult to find, build and ultimately maintain close relationships with other people.
It can happen that people become chronically lonely. Because even though our environment is developing at breakneck speed, there is one new technology after another and our everyday lives are becoming increasingly digital, our bodies and brains are practically the same as they were thousands of years ago: We need other people and social relationships in order to be pain-free and... to be happy.
Chronic loneliness wouldn't be so bad if it didn't hurt so much. Our psyche is constantly under strain and the stress affects our body.
You can find out here what dangers loneliness poses and why the “vicious circle of loneliness” is so stressful for our health.
In this final part of the “Loneliness Series” on our blog, I will finally give you concrete tips and exercises that will prevent loneliness or show you how you can deal with loneliness.
+++ If you feel acutely lonely, are thinking about suicide or would like to talk to someone, you can use the telephone counseling service . You can reach them free of charge around the clock on 0800 111 0 111 and 0800 111 0 222. You can of course remain anonymous. You can find further offers of help via this link . +++
If you would like to find out more about the topics of mindfulness, healthy eating or sustainability, take a look here .