Lonliness is a real threat.
The human brain, having evolved to seek safety in numbers, registers loneliness as a threat. The centers that monitor for danger, including the amygdala, go into overdrive, triggering a release of “fight or flight” stress hormones. Your heart rate rises, your blood pressure and blood sugar level increase to provide energy in case you need it. Your body produces extra inflammatory cells to repair tissue damage and prevent infection, and fewer antibodies to fight viruses. Subconsciously, you start to view other people more as potential threats — sources of rejection or apathy — and less as friends, remedies for your loneliness.
This kind of insight is validated by this long Harvard study. In particular, it’s not just that relationships matter - but the quality of relationships in midlife…
The study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife, now recognized as a good predictor of healthy aging. The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed.
One way out is to strengthen our trust in institutions and communal care. Not to give people support but to ask them for support:
“For years people thought the best thing you could do for a lonely person is to give them support,” she said. “Actually, we found that it’s about receiving and also giving back. So the best thing you can do for someone who is lonely is not to give them help but ask them for help. So you give them a sense of worth and a chance to be altruistic. Even if we’re getting the best care, we still feel lonely if we can’t give something back. The care is extremely valuable but it’s not enough.”