Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Loneliness spreads, so help fight it, to a point

I recently began a friendship with someone at school, and so far, it hasn't exactly been the most typical of relationships; my friend contacts me more than I am used to. This friend is only kind to me (perhaps much more kind than I feel comfortable with...why is this?), but a bit too needy. I feel guilty about how I am unwilling to give back as much energy as I receive from this individual, since I know that loneliness is a horrible feeling, but I just want to close myself off sometimes when I feel pressured to talk.

I summed that up a little too quickly, but it's irrelevant. Anyways, I recently stumbled on an article in the Boston Globe about loneliness as a evolutionary development, and about how loneliness spreads, and about how we can respond more gracefully to loneliness in our relationships. Here are my favorite snip-its from the article:

"There's something seemingly oxymoronic in the idea that loneliness can be catching...making sense of the contagiousness of loneliness demands that we rethink our idea of what loneliness is, and that we come to realize how being surrounded by people doesn't necessarily protect us...loneliness isn't being alone, it's feeling alone...a person can be lonely if he doesn't feel like he has a meaningful connection with any of them.
" an evolutionary adaptation that humans acquired to knit them together into collaborative social groups...spurs people not onto to form social ties, but to strengthen the ones they have. The paper Cacioppo co-wrote...fond that having a friend who reports feeling lonely makes a person 52 percent more likely to feel lonely.

"So if loneliness is contagious, is there something we can do to inoculate ourselves against it, as individuals or communities? One response is simply to quarantine the lonely. And there is some precedent for this in the animal world. But trying to emulate that model is likely to backfire badly. By being conscious of the contagiousness of loneliness, we can try to guard against spreading it ourselves, meeting a lonely person's negative affect with patience rather than absorbing it and passing it on to someone else. We can remind ourselves to think of a neighbor's loneliness as the manifestation of an innate hunger for conection, and remind ourselves that feeding the hunger is the best way to stop its spread.

Sometimes it's tempting to shy away from people who seem to need us much more than we need them, but the truth is that we need to quell their feelings of loneliness to protect our own sense of connectedness. Likewise, we need to give of ourselves even when it's inconvenient, for when we are in need of something, we hope that our loved ones will be there for us through and through. But it's also important to be able to say, "I'm sorry, but tonight's probably not the best for me," without fear of feeling like a bad person.

Drake Bennett, "The loneliness network." The Boston Globe. 27 Dec 2009.

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