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Loneliness (The Book)

March 26, 2009

I stumbled on Loneliness when I read a New York magazine article about the myth of loneliness in the big city, the idea that people in small towns were more social, that urban life atomized people.   “Rather than driving people apart,” the article said, “large population centers pull them together, and as a rule tend to possess greater community virtues than smaller ones. This, even though cities are consistently, overwhelmingly, places where people are more likely to live on their own.”

 After reading about the “cookie experiment,” I realized it was exactly the book I needed to read to help me work on the character of Caroline.  The idea that she would be vulnerable to a program like Alex, in that she could become addicted/attached to “him,” was predicated on her being lonely, but what was that besides a sad word?  What did it really mean, why wasn’t she out there with the shiny happy people?  How much of myself and my own experiences was I planning on pouring into her?  How could I see this behavior from outside myself, well enough to draw a believable character without getting tangled up in my own personal shit?   I know damn well that I’ve been avoiding writing this book in a way I never had to avoid writing light comedy, avoiding working on it/her because it would mean confronting all my own shit that’s left me rather suspicious of the world outside my few close friends and family. 

John Cacioppo and William Patrick’s book takes a look at the events and behavior patterns that cause loneliness, cause people to maintain that state, and the kinds of actions that can possibly help to break the cycle.  They approach loneliness not as some kind of moral or emotional failing, but as a biological prompt – the pain of isolation is our genes reminding us that we’re social animals, that we can make the pain go away if we rejoin the group.  Loneliness functions as hunger does, inflicting pain to force you to take action to correct it.  But this pain can push both ways – it can push you out of your shell and back into the world, or push you even further into that shell if you develop defense mechanisms, be they based on bad experiences or “just” increased hypersensitivity. 

The book is stuffed full of studies, a number of which prove that loneliness has a real, measurable impact on cognitive ability.  One of the abilities that deteriorates first is the one you most need to get out of the lonely state – the “social cognition” which the authors call “the sense we make of our interactions with others.”  People perform more poorly on cognitive tests (and eat more cookies) when they are either lonely or have been manipulated by the researcher for the purpose of the test to feel lonely or unwanted, and lose their “ability to self-regulate the emotions associated with feeling isolated.”  This diminished “executive control” leaks over into the rest of life, and coping strategies such as eating or drinking or shopping or porn or whatever become more prevalent as we lose our ability to select better options.  Moreover, the longer you are lonely, the more you lose that social cognition, which can set you into a defensive spiral where you begin to inaccurately prejudge people and their judgment of you, and lash out before they can hurt you first.

The ability to accurately read other beings, to get a sense of who was your friend or your enemy, which dog will lick and which will bite, is essential to animal survival.  And this ability decays with the self-perpetuating loops of negative self-talk that come with isolation:  I can’t go there, they’ll all laugh at me, I’m too fat, I’m too old.  So that even if you do go there, you’re wearing that face that says, I know you hate me, I’m prepared for your rejection, and people turn away because the depression and negativity you’re covered in isn’t an attractive, positive behavior.  The authors argue, convincingly, that

The “social brain” gave rise to the expanded cerebral cortex in humans because it gave an advantage to individuals who could learn by social observation; recognize the shifting status of friends and foes; anticipate and coordinate efforts between two or more individuals, eventually relying on language to communicate with, reason with, teach, and deceive others; orchestrate relationships, ranging from pair bonds and families to friends, bands, and coalitions; navigate complex hierarchies, adhere to social norms, and absorb cultural developments; subjugate self-interest to the interest of the pair bond or social group in exchange for the possibility of long-term benefits; recruit support for the sanctioning of individuals who violate group norms; and do all this across time frames that stretch from the distant past to multiple possible futures.

When it’s all listed like that, it feels like so much work you can get exhausted just thinking about it. 

They draw a clear line between loneliness and depression, though they often travel together: “Loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships.  Depression reflects how you feel, period.”  Loneliness drives us to do something about it, even if it’s eating cookies, whereas depression is an apathetic, lethargic state. 

Genetically, the authors argue, some people need only a handful of close friends, while others need an address book stuffed full of acquaintances.  You can be lonely in a crowd or a marriage if that one deep connection you need is missing.

So what is to be done?  How do you break the cycle?  The authors offer up cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and what they call the EASE model – Extend yourself, Action plan, Selection, Expect the best.  “Extending yourself” doesn’t have to mean gladhanding everyone in the room; some of the ideas are remarkably risk-free, like leaving your change in the vending machine for the next person – it gives you the feeling of connecting without the risk, giving you a little positive feedback that might help you be able to meet someone’s eyes and say “Hi.”  Or offering half a sandwich to someone, homeless or otherwise, especially if you weren’t going to eat it anyway.

The Action Plan gives you a feeling of control over your circumstances that you lose when your cognition suffers from loneliness.  Volunteering at an animal shelter gives you all that unconditional doggie and kitty love without the anxiety of being accepted by a large group of humans that you might have in another context.  (In the context of the book, the positive aspect of Alex for Caroline is that he’s good practice for real people, though of course the downside is that she could end up wanting him to replace them.)

Selection is of course the tricky part, as anyone who’s stayed in a bad relationship can attest, as you’re at risk of making a connection just to end the loneliness even if that connection is toxic.  “Part of selection is sensing which prospective relationships are promising, and which would be climbing the wrong tree.”  It’s a reminder as well that while the A&F model looks like the man of your dreams, if he doesn’t read books and you do (or vice versa, you never know), there’s not going to be a lot of connection established there. 

Expect the Best is pretty much CBT – partly talking yourself out of negative self-images, and partly feeding on the little rewards you get from successful forays into the world.  “While we wait for the change in us to register in the world around us, fear and frustration can push us back into the critical and demanding behavior associated with loneliness.  This is when patiently focusing on the small physiochemical rewards of reaching out to feed others can help keep us on track.” 

To me, one of the big gets from the book was the “feeding” angle (thank FSM for Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature or I never would have found it again):

 The most difficult conceptual hurdle for people in the throes of loneliness is that, although they are going through something that feels like a hole in the center of their being – a hunger that needs to be fed – this “hunger” can never be satisfied by a focus on “eating.”  What’s required is to step outside the pain of our own situation long enough to “feed” others.  Which, of course, does not always involve handing out leftover sandwiches at train stations.

I.E. loneliness hurts me or you because it hurts everyone who feels it.  Nobody wants to be lonely, and yet, nobody wants to be the first wallflower off the wall and ask someone else to dance.  Someone has to approach someone else, be it in an elaborate or offhand way, to say “great book” or “how’s it going” or whatever.  Irony: to get your own loneliness fixed, you have to remove a bit of loneliness from someone else first.

So what did I take away from the book?  For the novel, a lot – I’m definitely going to add some of the toxic defensive behaviors to Caroline, make her a little more brittle.  And, when it comes time for her to enter the world, I know how to make that entrance realistic, not magical.

What I took away from it personally, I’m not sure yet – I need time to absorb and see what effect it has.  I’m one of those people who need a few close friends, not a lot of people, but I could use a couple more – people tend to be coming and going too often in my life lately, and while the friendships endure, the companionship is gone when they are.  I remember one of the loneliest times in my life, doing my contract work on the only international job I ever did, which took me to Abuja, Nigeria, surely one of the world’s bleakest and scariest places.  For ten days I was shuttled to and from the gated compound work site and the gated compound Hilton, and had no place to safely go after work or anyone to talk to, save folks at home via Skype.  The other occupants of the hotel were pretty much all oil men, Nigerian oil ministers, and their very well armed and threatening guards, so the hotel bar wasn’t exactly the place for the guy from the HIV agency.  I was in “Africa shock” from the air pollution and poverty and danger and misery.  There were only a handful of channels on the hotel TV, channels on which you could oddly enough hear “shit” and “fuck” but where “goddamn” was bleeped out.  On the weekend, drinking the Guinnesses I knocked back to cope, with nothing else to do and nowhere to go, I watched About a Boy, and honestly it saved my sanity, taking me right out of that mental place I was in. Lonely Hugh Grant and lonely Nicholas Hoult forge an unlikely friendship, and I loved the ending, with the new extended family having Christmas, and the boy saying, “Suddenly I realized – two people isn’t enough. You need backup.  If you’re only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own.  Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least.”  (And yeah, I cried.  It’s an awesome movie.)  I could use some backup myself, and the question, always, is Morrissey’s – when you want to live, how do you start, where do you go, whom do you need to know?

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 26, 2009 7:04 am

    Great review. I will totally be putting this book on my reading list.

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