Genetics May Explain Why Some People Feel Lonelier Than Others
We’ve all felt the emotional pain of loneliness at one point in our lives. It’s a very mysterious and complex emotional response that can occur even when an individual isn’t physically alone — still completely surrounded by friends, loved ones, coworkers and strangers.
Loneliness also differs from ‘aloneness.’ Many people — especially introverts — find deep satisfaction in their solitude. They can disconnect from the world, recharge their energy, get to know themselves better and do creative work in peace. For them, being alone is more of a blessing than a curse.
So why, then, do some people just get lonelier than others? Out of two people who have the exact same number of friends and family members, one might feel totally satisfied with their social relationships while the other might be struggling with feelings of loneliness.
It turns out that loneliness might just have something to do with what you were born with. In the first genome-wide association study on loneliness, researchers found that the emotional response is partially influenced by the genes that people inherit.
Using health data from the Health and Retirement Study, which included more than 10,000 older adults ages 50 and over, researchers examined the answers that each subject gave for three different measures of loneliness. The word “lonely” was not used in the questionnaire, but each subject was asked to report on how often they felt they lacked companionship, how often they felt left out and how often they felt isolated from others.
After adjusting to account for variables like gender, age and marital status, the researchers found that a person’s tendency to feel lonely over the course of their lifetime (as opposed to simply a temporary state) was 14 to 27 percent genetic. Previous estimates of genetic influence over loneliness was 37 to 55 percent. The researchers say that the new estimate is lower because of the different method they used, called chip heritability, which captured only common genetic variations with no rare ones.
Genetics may indeed make a person more prone to loneliness, but researchers emphasized that environment has a larger impact. They also found that those who were genetically more prone to loneliness may also be more prone to other long-term negative emotional states, like neuroticism.
Loneliness isn’t just deeply unpleasant — it can be potentially deadly when it gets bad enough. Previous research found that loneliness can increase a person’s risk of early death by 30 percent.
Declining mental and physical health are linked to loneliness, which can potentially cut people’s lives short, and this may be increasingly true the older we get. According to WebMD, loneliness puts people at a higher risk of high blood pressure, sleep problems, trouble dealing with stress and a decreased ability for the body to fight inflammation.
Lonely people can certainly turn their emotional state around by using their loneliness as a motivator to start making better connections with people. There are three keys to social connection that can help fight loneliness:
- Intimate connections are those that make you feel like you can be your authentic self. You might need to work on restoring or recreating these intimate connections with your partner, closest friends or closest family members.
- Relational connections are those that involve social interactions where everybody wins. Try finding social activities to do that satisfy everybody’s interests.
- Collective connections are those that make you feel like you’re part of a real community. Taking a class, volunteering or joining a club are great ways to feel the social satisfaction of being part of a larger group.
For the many people who live alone, loneliness can be more intense for them. Here are some tips on how to overcome loneliness if you live with nobody else but yourself.
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