Comstock's magazine 0419 - April 2019 - Page 36

n WELLNESS I magine your boss asking you these questions: the results of which he and his research partner wrote about How often do you feel you have nobody to talk to? for Harvard Business Review, suggests that savvy CEOs should How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others? make addressing loneliness a priority, and that the solutions How often do you feel as if nobody really understands you? aren’t as simple as adding more Taco Tuesdays. These aren’t just hypothetical. In 1978, psychologists at UCLA asked 20 questions like these to create the Loneliness THE LONELY MIND Scale, giving birth to a new field of research. Over the next few Let’s start by debunking some myths about loneliness. You can decades, loneliness has been linked to higher risks of stress, de- be lonely even when surrounded by people, and you can be mentia, cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation and strokes. alone without feeling lonely. And a touch of loneliness can actu- Loneliness can kill — a 2015 study from Brigham Young Uni- ally be useful. Think of it as a warning light on your car’s dash- versity called it as damaging to life expectancy as smoking 15 board, telling you that something is wrong. “It’s a very function- cigarettes a day. al emotion,” says Ozcelik. “It’s a very primal drive. It goes back It’s tricky to quantify exactly how loneliness has changed to our ancestors in the wilderness. We’re programmed to be over time, but we do know it’s not rare. Nearly half (46 per- part of a group, because if you’re not, you’re not safe.” cent) of adult Americans view themselves as lonely, according Stephanie Cacioppo, a professor at University of Chicago to a 20,000-person 2018 survey from Cigna, which used UCLA’s who focuses on psychology and neuroscience, explains lone- Loneliness Scale. The percentage of people living alone has liness as “a state of mind.” It is a subjective feeling that can nearly doubled from 1967 to 2017 (from 7.6 percent to 14.3 per- come and go. “You can be not lonely one day, and then lonely cent, according to census data), the next,” says Cacioppo. “You and the number of people who wake up and everything else say they have no close friends is the same — you still have tripled from 1984 to 2004, ac- the same job. The furniture cording to a 2006 study in the hasn’t moved. What’s differ- American Sociological Review. ent? Your brain.” Former U.S. Surgeon General Loneliness is a perception Vivek H. Murthy calls it a “lone- gap between how connected liness epidemic,” and suggests we think we should feel and that loneliness should be tar- how connected we actually geted with a public outreach feel, experts say. So when we campaign in the same way we see hundreds of online friends do with cigarettes and obesi- doing fabulous and Insta- - Hakan Ozcelik, ty, and last year, British Prime grammable things, we’re more Minister Theresa May appoint- likely to feel the pang of lonely professor of management, Sacramento State ed a Minister for Loneliness. disappointment. As Cacioppo Could loneliness make us says, “Social media is not help- worse at our jobs? At Sacra- ing us feel more social.” mento State, a researcher and Cacioppo describes a spe- professor of management, Hakan Ozcelik, has been puzzling cific region of the brain that facilitates relationships with oth- over this question for the last decade. In 2007, he was surprised ers as the “social brain network.” When you are lonely, certain to find that no one had tackled loneliness in the workplace. communication-friendly zones of the brain shut down, such “From a research perspective, it was like finding a goldmine,” as the temporo-parietal junction, which helps us see the world he says, chuckling a bit. (Ozcelik is an unlikely expert of lone- from others’ perspectives — crucial to communication. At the liness; his voice is chronically cheery, and he seems always on same time, other zones of the brain become hyperactive, such the verge of a joke.) as the visual cortex, which helps us sniff out threats. So with So Ozcelik took the UCLA Loneliness Scale and adapted it the “lonely brain,” as she describes, “you’re going to be alert for the workplace, and has been studying the intersection be- at all times, like a super bodyguard. You’re going to see more tween loneliness and work for over a decade. This is a compli- negative information than positive.” cated field with a jumble of interrelated variables, yet Ozcelik’s Cacioppo gives an example: If you’re lonely, let’s say you work offers insights into how loneliness, and the perception of meet a colleague that you have known for years. They look loneliness, affects us in the workplace. His research, originally the same and they act the same. “But if you’re lonely,” says published in the Academy of Management Journal last year and Cacioppo, “when you look at their face and see their eyebrow “It’s a very primal drive. ... We’re programmed to be part of a group, because if you’re not, you’re not safe.” 36 | April 2019