An absorbing account of our genetically programmed need for each other’s company.
Cacioppo (Psychology/Univ. of Chicago), president of the Association for Psychological Science, and Patrick, editor in chief of the Journal of Life Sciences, offer a serious but enjoyable study of loneliness and its surprisingly harmful consequences. For millennia, primitive hominids roamed the African savannah in bands that were essential for fending off large carnivores. Few isolated individuals survived long enough to pass on their genes, so our DNA promotes sociability for sound evolutionary reasons. Long before civilization and the death penalty, the worst punishment a criminal could expect was ostracism. “Loner” is a word often seen in articles on serial killers. The authors rock no boats by explaining that personal happiness as well as material success requires the ability to manage the give-and-take of human interaction. They deliver some jolts describing what happens in the absence of social connections. High-tech research and population studies prove that lonely people suffer more than emotional stress. They fall ill more quickly, recover slowly and live shorter lives. While traditional culprits—lack of social support and unhealthy habits—contribute, it’s clear that isolation produces disease by impairing immunity, slowing wound repair and accelerating the aging process. Research subjects persuaded that they are unpopular show impaired judgment and a slower ability to solve problems. Those looking for cheerful advice on winning friends, attracting lovers and forging alliances with colleagues should move on to the self-help section of their bookstores, but they should also read Cacioppo and Patrick’s work. It provides convincing evidence that lonely people shoot themselves in the foot by harboring irrational fears of those whose friendship they seek.
Top-notch science writing: stimulating and useful information conveyed in accessible prose.