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Growing Beyond the Loneliness

Growing Beyond the Loneliness

A client recommended Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection by Stephanie Cacioppo, published April 2022. I read it the week I was teaching at the Cape Cod Institute, incorporating many of its insights into my teachings that week on The Resilient Mindset

I got intrigued by the story of her marriage to neuroscientist John Cacioppo, considered the founder of the research discipline of social neuroscience, even more intrigued by his research into loneliness; the pairing of their two perspectives quite extraordinary.

John’s book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection was waiting for me at the public library when I got home, and I spent the first week of my official retirement delving into the research that eventually led the British government to establish a new, official Ministry of Loneliness.

The “lethality of loneliness” is one focus of the research: that social isolation can shorten an individual’s lifespan as effectively as high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking. That loneliness disrupts our executive functioning, our thinking, will power, perseverance, the regulation of our emotions and the use of our social skills; loneliness can lead to self-reinforcing, self-defeating behaviors that reinforce the isolation and rejection we dread. 

The power of human connection to support longevity and well-being is the other focus. The genius of human evolution is that social connection – co-regulation and co-cognition – is what develops the neural circuitry in the brain that supports the executive functioning of the higher brain that enables us to be  self-regulating, inter-connected adults that can mature into skillful, successful, contented (not fear-based) human beings. 

It’s both the self-reinforcing downward spiral of loneliness and skillful cultivation of connection that I have spent 30 years addressing with clients. Dr. Cacioppo acknowledges that for most of human history, the philosophers, religious leaders, scientists didn’t understand that our genetically social brains made human beings hyper-empathetic, hyper-cooperative. That our progress and success as a human species comes not from individual brains but from our collective brain – our social cognition. That we can learn from our own experience and from the experience of others. That we can plan ahead for ourselves and for others. 

Despite all the other human advantages, our singularly most beneficial adaptation remains the self-regulation and the nuanced social cognition provided by our neocortex…A distinctive level of social perception, social cognition, connection, and cooperation are at the core of who we are as a species….Connection is the normal state and adds more water to the well that nourishes our human creativity.   – John Cacioppo

Dr. Cacioppo explores many of the paradigms used in social psychology to understand the power of connection-disconnection: attachment, temperament, genetics, the mind-body connection of the nervous system, theory of mind, mirror neurons, resonance and empathy in social cognition.  

When we feel satisfied with or social connections, we feel safe. When we feel safe, we can think more creatively. We also anticipate and more often experience positive emotions, which aside from their long-term physiological benefits, provide immediate and persistent psychological uplift. That boost in mood affects our subsequent behavior toward others, which, in turn affects how others behave toward us – which, once again encourages creative collaboration. Cause and effect cycle back and forth, and the positive continues to ripple outward in a widening circle. 

The widening circles can be like the Butterfly Effect, now well documented by researchers, that small scale events cause large effects, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” they call it. Kindness going fractal is how I would phrase it, and indeed, Dr. Cacioppo cites the benefits of “random acts of kindness” to generate social connection and social capital. 

Pay the toll for the car behind you; leave a few coins in the vending machine; give half a sandwich to a homeless person.

The field of social psychology has moved forward since Loneliness was published in 2008. Dr. Cacioppo’s recommendations for healing from loneliness lean rather exclusively toward the cognitive-behavioral. Change your behavior and you’ll change your experience of self and others.  All of his suggestions are valuable and effective. It’s just that we now know how essential working with the nervous system is to re-wiring the nervous system, and how much sharing positive pro-social emotions with another person changes the brain functioning of both people.

I do pass on to you here his exercises to EASE your way to social connection:

EXTEND YOURSELF

in small ways at first: a friendly exchange at the grocery store or library. (And regulate your own reaction if the response you experience is not super-friendly.) To improve the odds of a socially generous response, volunteer at a shelter or hospice, teach elders how to use computers, tutor children, read to the blind, help with a kids’ sports team.  You may begin to feel the positive sensations that reinforce your desire to change while building your confidence and improving your ability to self-regulate.

A for ACTION PLAN

We can change our situation by looking for appropriate opportunities to change our thoughts, expectations, and behaviors toward others, and choose where to invest our social energy. Again, starting with what’s doable: assist coaching a local soccer team rather than managing it; help at the local theater’s ticket office rather than being the star of the play; volunteer at an animal shelter, receive the loving affection of the animals, and eventually extend that to people.

S for SELECTION

Compatibility and sustainability more important than in healthy relationships than physical appearance or status, and you develop your social skills by learning to differentiate where there is reciprocity and common interests rather than exploitation or manipulation.

E for EXPECT THE BEST

Here Dr. Cacioppo encourages the sending out good vibes to other people while acknowledging that human relationships are complex and skill is needed to navigate the less than ideal responses from others.

Social contentment can help us to be more consistent, generous, and resilient. It can make us more optimistic, and that “expect the best” attitude helps us project the best. According to the logic of co-regulation, social contentment is more likely to elicit warmth and goodwill from other people  – such is the power of reciprocity….The need for patience dos not end once we begin to find greater happiness in our relationships. Even the best friends and the partners in the best marriages will disagree and hurt each other from time to time. The secret to success in the face of this reality is not to magnify the moments of friction by overinterpreting them. – John Cacioppo

There is no pill to cure loneliness. Growing beyond the loneliness requires conscious awareness and cultivating a new mindset about connection. I am encouraged by Dr. Cacioppo’s emphasis: that the  key to the power of human connection to support longevity and well-being is choice. 

Even with regard to the forces that are outside our control, the way we interpret them, cope with them, and act in response to them, can have dramatic effects on our future. This operates at a societal level as well as an individual. We as individuals and as groups can choose to seek solutions through committed actions that benefit the greater good well beyond our selves or our tribe. – John Cacioppo

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united in the larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he out to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the mend of all nations and races. – Charles Darwin