According to psychologist John Cacioppo, the feeling of loneliness has an evolutionary basis: We feel pain when we are lonely because that pain warns us we are in danger of becoming isolated, and isolation can be harmful, if not deadly.
In this well-researched book, Cacioppo and his co-author, journalist William Patrick, explain how we are wired to read human faces for social cues, but that lonely people are less skilled at this and, therefore, have more trouble maintaining meaningful relationships. Lonely people have less self-confidence and so have problems standing up for themselves and finding employment. The stresses of loneliness weaken our cardiovascular and immune systems, which decreases overall life expectancy. If the research cited in Loneliness is accurate, it’s clear why we are wired to avoid loneliness.
Cacioppo and Patrick argue against social policies and urban planning that lead to social isolation, and suggest ways individuals can reduce their loneliness. “The degree of social connection that can improve our health and our happiness, as well as the daily experience of everyone who comes in contact with us, is both as simple and as difficult as being open and available to others,” they write. Of course, therein lies the rub: Lonely people may find the cure hard to manage if they aren’t good at reading people or have low self-confidence. But Cacioppo claims that engaging in small acts of kindness and generosity—even anonymous ones, like paying a bridge toll for the driver who’s behind you—can increase happiness levels in the lonely. And we can all benefit from a little more of that.