The Evolution of Loneliness

By Sophia Robson
Research and Community Engagement Officer

One in four Australians report feeling lonely for three or more days a week (Lim, Rodebaugh, Zyphur and Gleeson, 2016). Humans are inherently social creatures, with our need to connect hardwired through years of evolutionary benefit from seeking survival in groups. Evolutionarily, humans were not that great at fighting or fleeing and as such, under conditions of threat, sought protection through coming together as a group. We soon evolved to use these social relationships as a primary resource to deal with stressful times.

Today, the hardwired need to form social bonds is so deeply ingrained that our vital systems have adapted to maintain it. Threats to our social contact can trigger our stress response, and over time cause us to feel depressed and lonely. On the other hand, chemicals such as oxytocin have been conditioned to release during social affiliation, reducing the cortisol response and threat induced amygdala activation.

So why in today’s society with our technology for increasing social interaction and a seemingly more connected world is loneliness reported to be increasing? Many answers to this question have been put forth, however the truth is that the cause is simply not yet known. While research shows that our reliance on technology, living in more independent households with decreasing family sizes as well as residing further away from where we work may all play a role in our rising loneliness, evidence is limited and often contradictory.

Whatever the reason for loneliness, it is shocking to consider that 25% of people experience loneliness at least three days a week (Lim et al., 2016). Lonely Australians are also 15.2% more likely to be depressed and 13.1% more likely to be anxious than those not lonely (Lim et al., 2016). Loneliness can have further effects on health such as sleep problems, headaches, aches and pains, worsening of medical conditions, substance abuse, lower levels of self-worth, life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing as well as a 50% increase of mortality (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris and Stephenson, 2015). This statistic suggests loneliness to be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day and a greater problem than obesity.

Although loneliness is not a diagnosable mental health category, it may lead to other clinically diagnosable disorders such as depression and anxiety. Some common signs and symptoms of loneliness include fragmented sleep, weight gain, low self-esteem, self-doubt and overwhelming feelings of isolation. A referral to a psychologist may be a way to manage loneliness. Some psychological treatment modalities for loneliness include interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation and mindfulness strategies and psycho-education.

Human connections were an integral part of the history of mankind and perhaps it is our inadequacy in considering the significance of this as a society that has led loneliness to now play an integral role in our present and future. This is a challenge that we now need to face together in order to overcome, through open discussion and de-stigmatisation of seeking help.