The Connection Between Loneliness and Life Meaning
I'm still trying to find the podcast that forecasted what life post-pandemic will be like. Granted, this is one scientist's perspective, and it's somewhat bleak because he doesn't predict life getting back to truly "normal" until 2023. However, one thing really struck me about his forecast--he predicted more and more people will begin flocking to churches and spiritual practices.
Why? According to him, in times of catastrophe, such as the pandemic, people look for meaning in the chaos. They don't find meaning through exercise. They don't find meaning in materialism. They find meaning through a search for God.
When we don't have meaning in our lives, we find it difficult to cope, particularly when we're alone. Therefore, it's important for us to find meaning and purpose to our lives. Here's some of the research I've been finding. Pardon the horrible means of citation--I can't quite figure out how to do footnotes in the Wix blog.
Loneliness is somewhat prevalent in the U.S., with one study finding about 60 percent of the population reporting feeling lonely in 2019—before the pandemic(1). Although many believe older adults suffer from loneliness, one study found(2) that loneliness peaks at the age of 19, which can be problematic since schizophrenia peaks at the age of 20(3).
However, loneliness is a perceived state rather than a physical one(4). We can feel lonely in the presence of others. Even though it’s perceived, it still can contribute to mental, social, and physical suffering. Because loneliness reflects back our own feelings of isolation, it can be difficult to emerge from it.
When we imbue our feelings of loneliness into any episode of our lives, it adds heavy baggage to our relationships with others. We anxiously cling to others for fear of being alone, and we feel depressed when others don’t feed our need for intimacy.
Experiencing trauma can amplify feelings of loneliness, although the presence of meaning behind the trauma can help combat loneliness(5). What is interesting is that trauma and the search for meaning are negative correlates. In other words, the more someone finds meaning behind and beyond the trauma, the lower the sense of loneliness.
Although loneliness and having life meaning are interdependent, they involve distinct connections in the brain. Research has found that the default network might be key in shifting between feelings of loneliness and life meaning(6).
The default network is a group of brain regions mostly active when we aren’t paying attention to a task before us. It kicks in when we’re daydreaming, ruminating about the past, or engaging in self-reflection—things we might do while alone.
Do our thoughts ruminate on how lonely we are, or do they reflect on our meaning of life?
2 Shovestul B, Han J, Germine L, Dodell- Feder D (2020) Risk factors for loneliness: The high relative importance of age versus other factors. PLoS ONE 15(2): e0229087. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229087
3 Van der Werf M, Hanssen M, Ko ̈hler S, Verkaaik M, Verhey F, van Winkel R, et al. Systematic review and collaborative recalculation of 133 693 incident cases of schizophrenia. Psychological medicine. 2014; 44(1):9–16. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291712002796 PMID: 23244442
4 Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC. Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends in cognitive sciences. 2009; 13(10):447–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.06.005 PMID: 19726219
5 Melissa Zeligman, Melanie Varney, Sara Gheesling & Vanessa Placeres (2019) Trauma, Meaning Making, and Loneliness in College Students, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 33:4, 319-331, DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2018.1523700
6 Laetitia Mwilambwe-Tshilobo, Tian Ge, Minqi Chong, Michael A Ferguson, Bratislav Misic, Anthony L Burrow, Richard M Leahy, R Nathan Spreng, Loneliness and meaning in life are reflected in the intrinsic network architecture of the brain, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 14, Issue 4, April 2019, Pages 423–433, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsz021