Loneliness Runs “Like a Dark Thread”

Loneliness is a complex emotion – and although it’s likely that we have or will feel lonely at some point in life, our experiences of loneliness are personal to us. The post below is the second by Henny Syers, an experienced educator and positive psychology practitioner who is passionate about social change and the importance of human connection.  

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Loneliness can rear its ugly head for different reasons and at different stages of our life.  Hopefully for most of us, it is no more than a passing phase, a period to endure, a stage to ‘get through.’ Sadly however, for some, loneliness persists and it can result and exacerbate more serious mental and physical health issues. 

In his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” Dr Vivek Murthy talks of loneliness as running “like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brought to [his] attention like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression.”  He refers to it as a serious public health issue and one that warrants our attention, a view with which I passionately agree.

The challenge is that – depending on the current cause of one’s loneliness, its dominating symptoms, one’s age, and personality – different solutions may be needed.  What is right for one person is not necessarily the silver bullet for another.  That being said, I ended my previous post by stating that in my next entry I would suggest one practical and positive step that is applicable to us all.  It is a step that we can all take to fight loneliness and build a stronger and more connected society.  It is guaranteed to make a positive difference regardless of your age, nationality, personality or whatever other distinguishing factor you decide to focus on.  Whilst it will take some proactivity on the individual’s part, its reward will more than make up for the initial self-initiation required.

The Importance of Purpose

As I said in my previous post, my own experience of loneliness this year has largely been down to a lack of perceived purpose, something that I have not, like some of my friends and family members, been able to carve out for myself.  Over the lockdown period, I have marvelled at the way in which some people have heroically rolled up their sleeves and turned their hands to new projects and ‘rainy day’ jobs.  Books have been written, books have been read, shirts have been made, drawers and cupboards emptied, shelves built, summer houses constructed, new recipes tried, ponds dug…  The list goes on.  On the whole, it has been my more introverted friends who have coped better with lockdown and with the lack of human contact that they have been forced to endure.

My more extrovert friends, on the other hand, have found lockdown particularly difficult which is perhaps unsurprising.  People who enjoy being around others and who get their energy from socialising will have found this period extremely draining.  Not being able to recharge by connecting with others face-to-face has, for some of my friends and close family members, been immensely challenging and has left many of them feeling low and thoroughly unmotivated.

My intention here is not to draw attention to the so-called poor coping skills of extroverts nor to put introverts on a pedestal.  Neither is it to suggest that it has been all ‘plain sailing’ for introverts.  Far from it.  However, there does seem to be something that unites those who have better coped with this challenging period: the ability to find and maintain a sense of purpose in the absence of normal social contact. 

Trying to set myself goals over the year has proved helpful to a certain extent but I have really missed the therapeutic synergy that occurs when coming together with others to achieve a common goal.  Research shows that our brains reward us neurobiologically when we join with other people to accomplish something positive.  Whether this goal be working alongside teammates to win a football tournament, harmonising with others in a choir, or working with a company team to increase sales figures, it feels good to join forces with others who reflect your sense of self and what is important to you. 

The Three Emotional Regulation Systems

However, is having a sense of purpose by working towards either an independent or a shared goal sufficient, or is there more to the story?  Does the nature of the goal also have a part to play?  In a word, “Yes.”  The reason for this becomes increasingly clear when we examine our three emotional regulation systems:

  1. The Threat-Defence System
  2. The Drive-Resources Seeking System
  3. The Care-Giver Soothing System

We switch between these systems or ‘mindsets’ to manage our emotions, thoughts, motivations, and behaviours.  Let’s now look at each in turn.

1. The Threat-Defence System is activated when we perceive danger.  Its aim is to protect us from harm and to ensure our survival.  This system is very powerful and is frequently overly activated.  It is associated with feelings of high arousal negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, hate, and sadness.

2. The Drive-Resources Seeking System is all about pursuing goals and accomplishments.  It motivates and energises us to engage with the world so that we meet our perceived needs, values, desired achievements, and wants.  As you can imagine, this system is an advertiser’s dream! 

3. The third and final system, the Care-Giver Soothing System, is the one that our modern, individualistic, and fast-paced world so often overlooks and that is so often neglected.  Unlike the Threat and Drive Systems which activate us, the Soothing System is associated with peaceful states and experiences.  It is about giving/receiving affection and care from others, kindness, encouragement, support and affiliation.  In evolutionary terms, the Soothing System is our Mammalian Care-Giving System. We now know from the research that behaviours linked to this system can weaken the sometimes toxic effects of the Threat and Drive Systems.  It is within the activation of the Care-Giver Soothing System, one that is so often both misunderstood and underutilised, that a solution to loneliness lies.

Our Need to Care

We know from experience that helping others feels good.  A wealth of research furthermore demonstrates the benefits of a range of prosocial behaviours to our physical and mental health.   Investigations into the positive effects of loving-kindness (for example, Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008), show that it promotes elevated wellbeing, heightened feelings of social support, and increased positive emotions.  Acts of altruism have furthermore been found to promote an array of health benefits, including increased physical health and longevity, reduced mortality, and reduced depression and anxiety (Post, 2005).  Volunteering is also associated with higher wellbeing (Thoits and Hewitt, 2001).  Even neuroimaging studies have shown that giving money activates the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’ (Harbaugh et al., 2007).  According to De Waal, one of the leading world experts in the biology and nature of empathy, every human is destined to be humane; our propensity to connect and empathise with others is an innate human skill.  Given all of this, why then do we not all help as readily as we perhaps should if we want to feel good, and improve our physical and mental health?

Maac (Massively Accessible Actions for Change)

Evie Rosset and her colleague, Matthieu Fouché, believe that the answer to this question lies in the fact that people don’t as yet have sufficient opportunity to act prosocially.  In direct response to this challenge, Rosset, an experimental psychologist by training, and Fouché, a clinical psychologist, set up “Maac Lab”, an organisation designed to promote “maacs ” (Massively Accessible Actions for Change).  Maacs are individual prosocial projects via which participants are given the opportunity to help others in a manner that feels authentic, meaningful, and manageable to them.

The beauty of “Maac” lies in its personalised approach.  The Maac curriculum consists of exercises based on decades of research in positive psychology, altruistic motivation and behaviour change.  Via simple group activities, people are encouraged to consider their individual qualities, interests and strengths, as well as the world causes they feel passionate about, whether they be as large-scale as climate change or relating to more localised concerns such neighbourly relations or community littering.

It seems that whilst many of us may want to help, we struggle for both ideas, means, and opportunity.  Perhaps some of us feel we don’t have the time or the necessary experience.  According to a study conducted in partnership with Ticket for Change in which they sampled the views of 2,000 respondents representative of the French population, 94% of French people want to take action to help solve our major social challenges; however, only 7% of them take action.   Maac helps in that it opens the doors and allows people to see that helping others can not only be rewarding and fun, but surprisingly easy too. 

Maac is currently focused on Maac Work (designed for businesses), Maac Social (designed for organisations in the health and human services sector) and Maac Youth (designed for schools, after-school programs, and youth centres).  I strongly believe that the product it delivers is one that we all desperately crave and need: the opportunity to help others in a way that is easy, that matters to us, and that aligns with our interests and character strengths.

The Light in the Dark

Given my experiences over this year, I was not surprised to find out that a sense of purposelessness was a risk factor for depression, risk taking behaviours, somatic complaints, and poor social relationships (Damon, Menon & Bronk, 2003).  We need to feel that our actions matter; by contributing to the welfare of someone else, they are given added purpose and meaning.  Post (2005) furthermore suggests that the reasons prosocial behaviours such as altruism and kindness are so powerful are that they help to distract the individual from their personal problems.  Within Maac lies a solution to heal the trauma of loneliness and to fulfil a need we all have but that many of us, to our own detriment, have neglected.

To close I quote a summary of Horatio Clare’s “The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal,” a very fitting analogy of the time in which we currently find ourselves, a time of darkness, challenge and introspection. As the summary goes, Winter is a time of “Seasonal sadness; winter blues; depression – such feelings are widespread in the darker months.  But by looking outwards, by being in and observing nature, we can appreciate its rhythms.” 

Now is the time to re-evaluate, to look “outwards” and to capitalise on the shared vulnerability that we have all experienced via this awful pandemic.  “By learning to see, we can find the magic, the light that burns bright at the heart of winter”.  This light is our propensity and need to connect and care for one another, “…the light that burns bright at the heart of winter: spring will come again.”  It is now up to us to welcome it with an open heart and an open mind.

Published by Improve My Well-being

Laura is an experienced mentor and teacher, with a MSc Applied Positive Psychology (Distinction). She enjoys living and working in multicultural environments and is passionate about promoting social well-being. Blogging is her outlet to share and explore well-being initiatives and practices with as many people as possible.

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