There's a front page story in the Washington Post this morning with news that everyone already knows: loneliness is bad for your health. The article summarized work done by Steve Cole at the UCLA School of Medicine, published last year, that showed a clear connection between feelings of loneliness and a decrease in immune functions. Another researcher, John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago suggests this response has an evolutionary basis for humans who needed a tribe for protection and successful hunting. This was the part of the article that caught my eye:
The pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger — it’s a biological signal that something is wrong.
This is an intriguing statement in part because for a well-fed American, the "pain of hunger" is not something that we are that familiar with. In fact, part of what Weight Watchers has taught me is to notice when I'm hungry and to notice when I'm not hungry. It turns out, for many people, we have disconnected eating from feelings of hunger. We eat out of habit, or boredom, or to give ourselves comfort or a reward whether or not we're actually hungry. So a big part of establishing a healthy relationship to eating is re-connecting that activity to hunger.
On the other side, I remember talking with a friend in high school who had struggled with an eating disorder. She told me that she got to the point where she enjoyed feeling hungry because it signaled to her that she was not going to gain weight. That's messed up too.
If we want improve our country's public health, we need to help our kids to have a healthy relationship to food, which means we need to teach them about hunger as a signal to eat. We need to ask them, "Are you hungry?" and "Are you full?" and respond appropriately to their answers. If you're full, stop eating, even if there is some food on your plate.
And what about loneliness? The Post article suggested that is "a biological signal", stemming from our deeply rooted need for community. If loneliness is like hunger, then it isn't necessarily "wrong" to feel lonely sometimes. In fact, it might even be helpful. If we are constantly around people, constantly interacting, aren't we in danger of becoming socially obese in some ways? Extreme or chronic loneliness, like extreme or chronic hunger, is bad for our health, clearly. But if it really is analogous to hunger, then occasional feelings of loneliness are not a reason to panic. They are just a reminder: I am a social animal. I need to be in relationship with people. I have an appetite for interaction.
If loneliness is a public health issue, if we want our kids to have healthy relationships with other people, we need to teach them about loneliness as a signal to reach out. But just like eating when we're not hungry, don't we sometimes seek out other people when we're bored or anxious or unwilling to do something or feel something that we actually need to do or feel on our own? Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same thing--and it takes some training to notice the difference.
“My Eyes So Soft”
by Hafiz, trans. Daniel Ladinsky
Don't surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,
My need of God