According to the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, loneliness is an emotion that at any one time impacts 60 million people in the United States alone. Impacts of the feeling cause many individuals to become isolated and unhappy, making coping with loneliness difficult. Modern geneticists are pointing to various studies which show the factors that result in the feeling of loneliness may be linked to human genes. This may have an evolutionary basis and can result in a variety of both mental and physical health problems for modern humans, when attempting to overcome loneliness. In addition, the different ways we decide to deal with loneliness may be directly linked to our genes.
Above: Frederick Leighton’s Solitude. (Supplied by Juanpdp at Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cd/Frederick_Leighton_-_Solitude.jpg)
Twin Study of Loneliness
A 2005 joint study between the University of Chicago and the Free University in Amsterdam analyzed data on 8,000 twins, both identical and non-identical. Throughout a time period of 14 years, these twins were asked a variety of questions to help determine the level genetics played in the feeling of loneliness. Using the standards of behavioral genetics, these researchers found that the feeling was highly divergent between non-identical twins, while almost indifferent in identical twins. This impliess that humans most likely have a genetic predisposition to loneliness.
In the book, Loneliness, authors John Cacioppo and William Patrick argue that this study shows that while there are number of environmental factors that facilitate loneliness, most notably being alone, the fact that people feel lonely even amongst a number of people can only be explained by genetic predisposition. They also postulate that since the level of people who suffer from loneliness in the world is so dramatic, it may be considered a genetic disease.
Loneliness as a Disease
Loneliness as a genetic disease can have dire effects on a person. It has been linked to many emotional problems and mental conditions, such as anxiety and a lack of self-esteem. Loneliness also can result in feelings of irritability, anger and a further lack of social interaction. Physically, loneliness has been linked to an increased chance of heart disease.
According to the University of Chicago, studies have shown that people who experience loneliness generally marry people who feel lonely and vice versa for non-lonely people. This may further propagate the factors of these conditions in reproduction.
In order to combat feelings of loneliness, most medical professionals suggest increased social networks. Due to the origins of the genetics, it is believed that strong friendships cause a decrease in feelings of loneliness; however, there is a link to people with social skill factors, such as introversion to loneliness, which may impact this solution.
Research into Ancient Loneliness
Researchers from the University of Chicago believe that the gene which causes loneliness may have developed during prehistoric times. Early humans acting as hunter-gatherers were under constant pressure from dangerous animals and the need to become better nourished. Humans could not survive against many wild animals, such as sabretooth tigers, alone with just a stick. This meant that humans better survived by working together in small groups for protection and delegating different food practices, such as gathering and preparation, to better facilitate human function. The actual feeling of coping with loneliness may be a self-preservation technique.
“Loneliness Could Be In Your Genes” BBC News (https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4426184.stm)
“Feelings of Loneliness May Be Genetic” New York Times (https://www.nydailynews.com/lifestyle/health/2008/12/10/2008-12-10_feelings_of_loneliness_may_be_genetic_re.html)