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Loneliness Expert Talks Individual and Societal Loneliness at Harvard School of Public Health Seminar

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Louise C. Hawkley, a principal research scientist at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, delved into the individual and societal factors that contribute to loneliness at a Harvard School of Public Health seminar Wednesday.

The talk, titled “The Opposite of Loneliness: Individual and Societal Paths to Belonging and Trust,” was hosted by the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. Hawkley is also a co-investigator on the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a panel study funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, director of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at HSPH, introduced Hawkley. He noted the center is focused on discussions of loneliness due to increasing attention from the public and among policymakers.

“What we have been trying to do at the center was to not only look at, diagnose, and elucidate the social problem, which is being done in plenty, but also look at some solutions,” Viswanath said.

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In her talk, Hawkley distinguished loneliness from social isolation. While loneliness is an unpleasant subjective feeling that is not willingly chosen, she explained, isolation is an objective state that may be chosen and is not necessarily unpleasant.

“Choice is a big part of it,” Hawkley said. “I think all of us would know that choice and having autonomy is important.”

Neural activation patterns of loneliness overlap with the neural circuitry of physical pain, Hawkley said. She added that human brains are biologically wired toward seeking the reward of social connectedness.

“Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connection is intact,” Hawkley said, quoting sociologist Martha N. Beck ’85.

Hawkley also discussed the impact of social media on loneliness, citing a study of high school students that suggested a correlation between loneliness and internet use. She also noted the importance of distinguishing between the different ways high schoolers utilize social media.

“Are they using it to connect with friends and groups where they already have relationships?” she said. “Or are they going into foreign land, making connections with people that they don’t know?”

Covid-19 also had a significant impact on loneliness levels, Hawkley said. Among older adults, an increase of in-person contact was the only factor associated with a decrease in loneliness. Increased use of phone calls, video calls, and online messaging during this time did not effectively compensate for the loss of in-person connection.

Hawkley said a society characterized by “high levels of institutional distrust and suspicion” is an unhealthy one.

“That contributes to distrust in relationships with strangers and with groups. It also exacerbates loneliness through the kinds of circumstances that are around you on a more individual level,” Hawkley said. “It encourages dehumanization of others, all of which I think we’re very familiar with.”

“The result of all of that is yet more distrust,” she added.

Hawkley also cited studies that have shown varying estimates of loneliness across countries, which she attributed to differences in welfare, health care services, and social trust.

According to Hawkley, loneliness also corresponds to more politically conservative ideologies, such as xenophobia and endorsement of right-wing authoritarianism.

Hawkley’s concluding slide called on the audience to take action.

“Where would YOU start when addressing loneliness and belonging?” the slide read.

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