New research suggests that chronic longterm loneliness is physically detrimental to your health and longevity; even more detrimental, possibly, than our nation's favorite bogeyman, obesity. This is, of course, a horrible confirmation of what we've long suspected, though those suspicions always felt more superstitious than substantial—just a thing you say, just a metaphor. This hurts SO much. Can you DIE of loneliness? But could it actually be true?
Via the Independent:
"The results were unchanged when you considered their objective social circumstance, for instance whether they were married or lived near family and friends. These didn't change the association between loneliness and mortality," he told the meeting.
Although many people state that the prefer their own company, the solitude or joy of being alone is not the same as the pain of feeling alone, which can lead to depression and low self-esteem, he said.
Chronic loneliness is linked with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the morning, which raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Loneliness is also linked with higher blood pressure and a weakening of the immune system, Professor Cacioppo said.
One possible explanation for its link with ill-health is that loneliness seems to make people sleep less deeply. Lonely people tend to suffer from brief "microawakenings" in the night, which may reflect a nervousness about being alone at night, he said.
"As people age and lose mobility, they are at an increased risk of chronic loneliness, which would threaten the person's well-being almost immediately, and would increase their odds for depression, compromised immunity, and fatigue due to poorer quality sleep — all of which could hasten their ageing," Professor Cacioppo said.
Not everyone is terrified of loneliness, but I think it's safe to say that most of us are. Not romantic loneliness, necessarily, but just the idea of having no one. No connections. No empathy. Existing without context. What would be the point? There's a reason why prison reform advocates consider solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment.
Our culture's fear of dying alone (and, much worse, living alone forever) might be even more powerful than our fear of getting fat—although the two are undeniably linked. Loneliness is treated as a fitting punishment for fatness; the "fat = subhuman" branding campaign should be taught in every marketing textbook. The fact that I, a fat person, am not lonely inspires a level of internet vitriol I don't get from even my most controversial posts on rape, abortion, and politics. The idea that losing weight functions as a cut-and-dried "cure" for loneliness is seductive—it allows people to avoid their darker, knottier issues and obsess over this single superficiality. To declare that fatness and loneliness are not synonymous, that happiness springs from something much less quantifiable, is terrifying to a lot of people.
But all this harassment is "for my health," apparently. So that raises the question: Is the anti-fat concern-troll brigade going to start shaming the lonely now? Will they steal private photos from lonely, dying old people and plaster them all over the internet's gutter with captions like, "Get a friend, Saddy"? Will non-lonely people begin posting photos of themselves surrounded by loving friends and family with the caption, "WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE?" Will there be multiple Subreddits devoted to horror stories about having to sit next to weeping old maids on planes? Will NBC develop a Biggest Loser spin-off called The World's Most Not Awkward Person Anymore? (It would be about as effective as the original, I suspect.)
After all, loneliness is a health risk. What about your insurance premiums?
Well, of course that won't happen. Of course we wouldn't do that. This is relatable. This is heartbreaking. This needs to be examined in a systemic, cultural way—obviously attacking individuals and blaming/shaming them for their own loneliness would be barbaric. Also, we wouldn't want to assume that everyone who is alone is lonely! This is an issue that requires a nuanced, humane approach.
So why is it so unthinkable that we should take a nuanced, humane approach when it comes to fat people? (And EVERYONE ELSE ON EARTH?)
I don't mean to endorse the idea that being fat is inherently negative in the same way that it is to self-identify as "lonely." And I don't mean that the size of one's body (or the number of friends in one's social circle, for that matter) is a reliable indicator of health. The scientific literature on what makes us fat, what keeps us fat, and whether or not fatness is a clear-cut health determinant (or largely a symptom of other health problems) is vast, still developing, and by no means conclusive. I'm sure the literature on this loneliness/health connection is similarly complex. And, regardless, people's physical and mental health concerns are between them and their doctors. But the fat vs. loneliness analogy is useful because it illuminates the fallacy of marginalizing people for their own good.
Some people are lonely because they're dickheads. Some people are dickheads because they're lonely. Some people are lonely because they've experienced a traumatic event that prevents them from connecting with other human beings. Some people are lonely because they had bad luck (or good luck) and everyone they know died. Every person just is a person. And that revulsion you feel when you think about shaming people for their own loneliness? That's the same revulsion you should feel for treating ANY human being that way—fat or thin, lonely or connected, healthy or unhealthy. It's even less effective than it is humane. And it's time we stopped pretending like this isn't common sense.
Image via Giedriusok/Shutterstock.