An exploration of why we feel lonely

As humans, we are inherently social beings, having developed a need for connection that is now encoded in our genes.

Early humans had higher chances of survival in the wild by being in groups rather than alone, which brought about an evolutionary desire to be social. They needed to cooperate, live together, hunt together, and move together in order to stay alive in the challenging environment that they faced. The humans who were best able to collaborate and find cohesion within the group had the greatest chances of survival, and thus, theirs were the genes that were passed on.

However, more than mere survival, we also achieve joy from feeling closely connected to others. In moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, Righteous Minds, he describes about what he calls “the hive mentality.” According to his findings, humans are partly selfish but also partly “hive-ish” creatures, writing that “we have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves.” This “something” is the group – as humans, we have the ability to feel innately connected to those around us. Haidt also pulls heavily from the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who writes that “the very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of expectation.” This goes further to say that not only do we need connection for survival, but we also need it to reach higher levels of happiness and mental well-being.

This is closely echoed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which love and belonging fall into the third-order level of needs, after physiological (i.e., food, water, shelter) and safety needs (i.e., security, employment, resources). That is, once our basic needs are met, a need for human connection, friendship, love are the next top priority. Of course, each of us has different levels of day-to-day social needs (i.e., some are extroverts and others are introverts, requiring different levels of social interaction to feel satisfied), but we all need connection to some extent.

This explains why, in prolonged periods of social isolation, we often develop feelings of sadness, loneliness, and maybe even depression. When we have a real or perceived lack of social connection, we begin to feel lonely. This desire for connection is a very deep-seated need that is encoded in our genes, and without it, we feel that something is lacking. We need to be around people in order to feel okay and alive, to continue getting ideas and inspiration, and to feel connected to others around us. Otherwise, we feel separated and increasingly vulnerable.

Unfortunately, once we start feeling lonely, our natural reaction is often to distance ourselves from others, the opposite of what we should actually do. By drifting away from others, we increase our own isolation and feelings of loneliness. In those moments, it is even more important that we continue talking to and engaging with others, in order to retain the feeling of social cohesiveness and connection that is built into our psychology as humans. It is important to remain connected and in contact with friends and others, even when we may, paradoxically, feel least like doing that.

In the current situation with COVID-19, slipping into loneliness can be easy and sometimes even inevitable – I have certainly felt it. However, this is something of which it is important to remain vigilant, a constant balance to maintain, in order to avoid going too far into the wrong direction.

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