Sometimes people ask, “If you had to pick just one thing, what would be the one secret to a happy life?” The answer is clear: strong bonds with other people. If I had to pick one thing, that’s it. The wisdom of the ages and the current scientific studies agree on this point.
On that subject, I just finished a fascinating book by John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. The book underscores the conclusion that few things will challenge your happiness more than loneliness.
Without thinking it through, I’d assumed that being lonely would make people warmer, more eager for connection, and more accepting of differences in others. If you’re lonely, you’re going to be open to making friends and therefore more easy-going, right?
To the contrary! It turns out that being lonely has just the opposite effect:
–Loneliness “sets us apart by making us more fragile, negative, and self-critical.” (174)
–“When people feel lonely they are actually far less accepting of potential new friends than when they are socially contented.” (180)
–“Lonely students have been shown to be less responsive to their classmates during class discussions, and to provide less appropriate and less effective feedback than non-lonely students.” (181)
–“When people feel rejected or excluded they tend to become more aggressive, more self-defeating or self-destructive, less cooperative and helpful, and less prone simply to do the hard work of thinking clearly.”(217)
–Bonus loneliness tidbit: “People with insecure, anxious attachment styles are more likely…to form perceived social bonds with television characters.” (258)
Loneliness makes us so anxious and worried about rejection that it distorts our thinking and our behavior.
This argument supports the arguments against the two most pernicious happiness myths: Happiness Myth #1—Happy people are annoying and stupid and Happiness Myth #10—It’s selfish to try to be happier. Cacioppo and Patrick make the convincing case that socially contented people (a/k/a happy people) tend to be kinder.
The obvious next question is, “Well, I’m lonely, and I’m not happy. What do I do now?” Loneliness didn’t address that question, alas.
The book includes a quiz so you can score yourself on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. I scored a 31, where a score lower than 28 is low-loneliness; above 44 is high-loneliness; and 33-39 is the middle of the spectrum.
* A thoughtful reader pointed me to the wonderful My Big Walk — “One woman. One year. One thousand miles.” Laura Lico Albanese decided to celebrate a milestone birthday by walking one hour, every day, for 365 days — and to blog about it. A fabulous happiness project! I love it!
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.