Wherever there are people, there is loneliness. But not everyone is affected by it to the same degree. Why is that? Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo distinguishes three factors that influence the extent to which you may experience feelings of loneliness:
1. Your “level of vulnerability to social disconnection.” Every person needs recognition by others, to be seen, accepted and appreciated. But not to the same degree. Some people need a lot of social interaction and like to socialize with large groups of people. Others are more private and prefer a small number of people around them.
2. Your “ability to cope with the emotions associated with feeling isolated.” Some people cope better with feeling lonely than others. And this may change over time: You may have felt lonely as a child very often, but not at a later age. Or the other way around: in the past you rarely had feelings of loneliness and nowadays a lot.
3. Your “mental representations and expectations of, as well as reasoning about, others.” How we see ourselves and others influences how we see our social connections, and the other way around: Loneliness affects the way we see ourselves and others.
According to Cacioppo, 48% of all this is genetically determined. Our genetic predisposition determines, as it were, the threshold value for our personal feeling of loneliness: the lower our need for social connections, the higher our natural resistance to loneliness. The other 52% of our sensitivity to loneliness is determined by our experiences with the people we meet in our lives.
Remarkable about the causes of loneliness is that they have nothing to do with the prejudices that are often associated with it. Contrary to those prejudices, it turns out that lonely people are no more or less physically attractive than others; they are no more or less intelligent; loneliness has nothing to do with age either.
Even your social skills are not decisive per se: Research by Cacioppo shows that lonely people “have the capacity to be just as socially adept as anyone else.” And lonely people are not emotionally incapable of making connections either: philospoher Lars Svendsen rightly points out that “only a person who can exhibit friendship and love can feel lonely.”
Where non-lonely people often think that it is the lonely person themselves who’s to blame (“you’re just not trying hard enough”), the lonely person often thinks that it is the fault of others (“people have let me down”). The truth – as so often – lies somewhere in the middle. Lonely people are not just victims of a society that does not see them, nor is it entirely their own fault.
“The vicious circle by which loneliness proceeds does not happen in isolation,” says loneliness expert Olivia Laing, “but rather as an interplay between the individual and the society in which they are embedded.”
Part of this interplay is an aspect that, if you feel lonely, deserves your attention: Trust. Studies show that there is a clear correlation between low levels of trust and loneliness: the more you trust other people, the less lonely; and the less trusting, the more lonely.
“The ability to trust others and the ability to develop attachments are closely related,” Svendsen notes. “Lack of trust produces a caution that undermines the immediacy that is so important in our attachment to others.” In order to build meaningful connections, we have to have some basic level of trust.
“People with low generalized trust do not necessarily view others as malicious, but rather as risky – as people who could hurt them,” Svendsen points out, and “mistrust prevents you from reaching outside yourself.” With loneliness as a likely result.