*Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
Over 9 million people in the UK- one fifth of the population-say they often feel lonely, but many are reluctant to admit it. With its “stiff upper lip” culture and more introverted personality this may not be entirely surprising in the UK.
In South Africa, on the other hand with its professed “ubuntu” culture and supposedly more outgoing personality, one would think its population would be less prone to isolation and consequent sense of loneliness.
In fact recently published research shows that South Africa ranks 8th in terms of the world’s loneliest countries with 24% of the population living alone. What is driving this trend? Slowing growth in the housing market has contributed to more people being able to afford to live alone. Additionally, fewer individuals are getting married due to the exorbitant cost of marriage. This leads to an increasing number of individuals living alone as well as single parent households.
Loneliness is now becoming so pervasive in our Western culture that some social scientists refer to it as the “epidemic of loneliness” And there are some unfortunate consequences.
Loneliness increases vascular resistance, which moves blood to the muscles and heart. That’s helpful when there’s a specific threat, but lonely individuals exhibit this over the course of a normal day. As you age, that translates into higher blood pressure. Loneliness also increases base-line levels of cortisol — a powerful stress hormone. If cortisol in animals is increased by exposing them to chronic stressors, they die earlier due to organ deficits.
Further studies have shown that when one is lonely, the brain remains alert for threats and results in more micro-awakenings or sleep fragmentation.
Loneliness is associated with altered gene-expression, which makes people more susceptible to viruses; a correlation that has been shown in humans and animals.
So much for some of the effects of loneliness in the general population. What about the social isolation often commented on in retirement? Leaving the structure and in-built social connections of a job and ending up in a solitary situation in retirement inevitably leads to a sense of loneliness. This applies more to men than to women because women are more inclined to stay connected and are more particularly able to build easy new relationships
The problem for men, especially the high-achieving men is that they have been so focussed on striving for impressive results in whatever they do that there has been little time to build relationships outside of work. ‘Achievement addiction’ has now become a subject for psychological research. And it is particularly these high achievers who are proud and so independent that they are reluctant to admit anything as ‘damning’ and perceived to be ‘weak’ as loneliness.
What is to be done about this and how does one increase social connection? This, of course is easier when one is younger and is correspondingly more difficult in later life. Instead of suffering from the boredom and empty time that many retirees do, the first bit of advice is to reset the contact with friends and often neglected relatives. Return to the “tribe” which may be a little awkward at first but definitely rewarding. Those fortunate retirees that belong to a club, or an active church group can expand their membership activities
In most cities and other communities there are clubs and associations that high achieving retirees never had time for but now can focus on societies around their interests; Archaeology, Music, a book club, birding and wildlife, nature conservation etc. One of the best options is to study further and then to become a student member of a college, university or business school
Many high-achieving people have had relatively less time in their working lives to devote themselves to their families. In retirement becoming more active with children and grand children is very rewarding. Not just the normal birthdays and annual celebrations, but organize specifically family ‘adventures’ like hiking trips and going to the bush together