Do you know the lonely one?

The front page story yesterday about how loneliness is “lethal” would lead you to think that we just discovered it. The fact is that scientists have known for some time that loneliness and social isolation put people at higher risk for heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. What’s new in the past couple of months is that studies of the genome are yielding information on the specific mechanisms that make it happen.

Because social cohesiveness and cooperation were vitally important in early human history, the brain is rigged to see a lack of strong ties as a signal of danger. Just like any other kind of stressor, that signal puts the body on the alert, even down to the cellular level. In studies of both humans and macaque monkeys, researchers have discovered that social isolation leads to specific genetic changes that turn up inflammatory processes in the body and turn down the production of antibodies against viruses and other pathogens. These genomic adaptations are linked to human evolution, designed for our survival, and are closely related to the body’s stress response.

This heightened fight-or-flight response, activated on a chronic basis, results in increased inflammation and a reduced immune response, leading to significant long-term damage. The mechanism is observed in both directions: a change in gene expression predicts future loneliness, and loneliness predicts future gene expression. In older adults, perceived loneliness leads to an increase of 14% in premature deaths.

Sydney_142It’s worth mentioning that loneliness is not the same as being alone. What matters is whether someone feels connected, and feels satisfied with the connections he or she has. Plenty of people (myself included) relish some solitude on a pretty frequent basis, but that doesn’t equate to loneliness or isolation.

While we often focus on the elderly being socially isolated, loneliness can strike anyone, from the bullied schoolchild to the working adult with social anxiety. In the book “Fear”, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about original fear and original desire. He says original fear started at birth when we were pushed, helpless, out into the world, unsure whether anyone would take care of us. That fear “was born along with the desire to survive. This is original desire.” Original fear and original desire stay with us as we grow, especially the fear that no one will love and care for us. To me, loneliness is one manifestation of that fear.

You may be reading this and thinking, “I’m not lonely – I don’t need to worry about this.” There’s a bigger picture, however, that might concern you. Analysis of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has shown that loneliness (like obesity, quitting smoking and other habits and trends) is contagious. So the more time that people in your social network, even those on the fringes of it, spend feeling isolated, the more likely it is to spread to others in the network. Over time, there’s a possibility that more of us start experiencing those feelings.

In a world where connection is constant, but often feels unsatisfying, how can we feel less lonely? How can we help others who are lonely? Forced togetherness is not the answer. Interestingly, some research has shown that a mindfulness based stress reduction program is more successful than social networking or community programs are at reducing feelings of loneliness in the elderly. MBSR has also been shown to turn down the pro-inflammatory processes in the body. The focus on present moment may be guiding attention away from the fear of being alone.

Christakis has said that when you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network.” It would be wise to consider how we can do more to reach those people and offer them positive social connections. Maybe we can light up the network with love rather than fear.Lights

Spacious hearts in a big country

Generosity has been an important presence in my life this month. So I looked up the definition of the word, and I saw that two of its meanings are “readiness or liberality in giving” and “largeness or fullness”. I like those definitions, because truly, being ready and willing to give to others enlarges us beyond measure.

I’ve spent the past 2-1/2 weeks traveling in Australia, and I have been the beneficiary of countless acts of generosity. In Sydney, a business acquaintance invited us to his home for a relaxed and convivial family meal, because he knew that eating in restaurants night after night gets old. In Brisbane, a woman I met at dinner one night offered to drive me to the koala sanctuary I wanted to visit — and then paid for my entry once we got there. Volunteer guides at botanic gardens and art museums freely and pleasantly shared their knowledge and their passion for the treasures they oversee. The cheery people in the many small cafés and B&Bs always greeted us with a smile and an eagerness to talk about what they had to offer us.image

Sally Kempton writes that practicing generosity challenges “our trust in abundance” as well as “our ability to empathize with others”. Believing that we have enough for ourselves makes it easier to give to others, as does the perception that the person to whom we are giving has the same needs and desires as we do. The great gift of the people I met was their willingness to share, whether it was information, food or friendliness, without reservation or frugality. They acted on the assumption that our commonalities were greater than our differences, and didn’t hold back.

The connection that occurs between people when we are generous with each other is what brings fullness to us. The more we give, the more we have. It’s an expansion of the social network that takes us out of our narrow perspective and allows us to glimpse the web of possible interrelationships in the world. It enlarges our potential at the same time that it makes the world seem incredibly small and intimate.

Acts of generosity color our view of life, whether they are the kindnesses of strangers when we travel or the simple things we do for our friends and family every day. When we receive generosity, the view is as bright as a rainbow; and when we don’t, it can be as dark as a storm cloud. I saw a real rainbow one day during my trip, but I also like to think of it as a symbol of what I received.

What was your first social network? (Hint: Not Facebook)

A baby in the arms of her father – with her mom looking on – is forming her first and most important social network. Her network expands day by day, babybecoming more complex, as she is introduced to siblings, babysitters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Soon, she starts forming networks separate from the family – friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches. Eventually she has networks that encompass jobs, community and the entire digital world.

Traditional social networks give us several kinds of support.  Tangible support includes things like money, a place to live or help with chores; informational support includes advice and instruction; emotional support covers love, trust, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. When we’re young, we rely on our parents for all three kinds of support; but as we mature, we look to other people in our network to provide some or most of these things, and we learn not to rely on any one person for everything.

Social connection is vitally important for health and well-being, but “connect” may be one of the most overused words of the last decade. We connect on Facebook, Linked In,Twitter and blogs; we connect with old friends, strangers, and people around the world; we connect at home, at work, on the subway and as we walk. But in our rush to connect with everyone, all the time, everywhere we go, do we make it all seem too facile? Do we forget the effort that goes into forging strong and lasting bonds?

It’s easy to click the “Like” button, but not so easy to engage with people day after day, through good times and bad, in the face of disagreements and hurts. It’s easy to send a text or an email, but it takes time to pick up the phone or meet in person to iron out differences. As our digital networks expand, are our in-person networks contracting?

The family network – our first – in many ways bears the brunt of our relational laziness. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the same fear of losing the people in that network. We learned early that we could rely on them, so we don’t worry about paying attention to them and cultivating the relationships. We take them for granted. Worse, we don’t mend the little tears and breaks in the fabric of the relationships, because we don’t think we need to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the past two weeks, I’ve been both to a family funeral and on a family vacation. Each one reminded me that families are messy and complicated organisms! At the funeral, a sister stood on one side of the room not speaking to her siblings. No one even knows for sure why she’s not speaking to them. On every family vacation, I see how hard it is for everyone not to slip back into their habitual roles: good child, bad child; provocateur, peacemaker; the bossy one, the passive one. No wonder we want to be with our “easier” social networks instead!

The novelist Doug Coupland has written, “People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people’s families. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” The truth is, though, that unless you have a truly terrible family, they are the people who will be there for you over the long haul, the ones you’ll be able to call in the middle of the night with a crisis, and the ones you’ll want to share your successes with. Sometimes you feel like you can’t live with them, but it’s almost always better than living without them.

My intention for the new year? To pay attention to my family, to give and forgive, to listen more patiently, to judge less often and to share more meaningfully.

Everyone else should change, right?

Why is it that even though we know how difficult it is for us to change ourselves, we still think we will be successful in getting other people to change their behaviors? So we knock our heads against the wall trying to persuade, cajole, bribe, or strong-arm someone else into changing. It doesn’t usually work.

I read some advice once that the only influence parents can really have with children once they hit their late teens is by being a good listener and being a role model.  Doesn’t that apply to anyone in our lives whose behavior we’d like to influence? The idea of living by example is common to many religious practices and moral choices, from Christianity to veganism. Letting your actions speak for you, practicing instead of preaching is a mindset that is difficult to embrace, but perhaps more powerful in the long run.

Sometimes when we adopt positive changes in our own lives, the first thing we want to do is tell everyone else about them and then urge them to do the same. What we don’t realize is that usually the people we are telling don’t want to hear it.  But we’re too impatient to wait for them to come to their own realizations about changing. Perhaps we also doubt our own ability to influence others strictly by our actions; we seem to believe that we can only convince someone by overtly teaching and badgering. We need to learn to trust our power to influence by action.

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are social scientists who have studied “network phenomena”, and how they relate to things like smoking cessation, the spread of epidemics, the spread of innovation, and even the incidence of loneliness. Their work shows that social networks (not online social networks, but all the interconnections people have with each other in families, workplaces, schools and other groups) are powerful entities. People at the center of a network, those with the most interconnections, have the ability to influence and predict the spread of ideas, disease, and behaviors throughout the network.

For instance, Christakis and Fowler demonstrated that groups of interconnected people in a network tend to stop smoking at the same time, whether their social ties are close or distant. Another study they conducted showed that if one person in a network feels lonely on one additional day per week, then the incidence of loneliness increases among others in the network that month. They have written about the application of the research to other emotions and behaviors as well, both positive and negative.

The power of a social network is pretty awesome, and holds a lot of promise for being able to disseminate change. Another, related method that shows promise is what is called the “social norms” approach. The philosophy behind it is that since humans are group-oriented, and since social norms guide group behavior, it is important that people know what the norm is. Often, people have erroneous opinions about the norms, especially young people.

We’ve all heard teenagers say, “But everybody is doing [fill in the blank], right? Research has shown, though, that just by spreading the word of what the majority behavior really is, risky behaviors can be reduced.  So telling kids that the majority of young people do not engage in binge drinking, do not think smoking is cool, and do report bullying to teachers can reduce all of those behaviors in the group – better than the scare tactics that have traditionally been used.

We’ve all heard that “actions speak louder than words”. The bottom line is that people want to belong to the group, and they want to be like people they admire. Live by your values and do the right thing. It will have an effect on those around you.