Connection vs loneliness: the role of meditation
As the year ends with the festive season, as work grinds to a halt, families re-unite and all the focus is on togetherness, for many people this is the time that tests their feelings of connection to others. I wanted to find out what research has been published about the effects of meditation on loneliness and social connection. As with most meditation research, this topic has just started getting scientific attention. My search threw up insights into the nature of loneliness, our need to feel included, and how hours spent looking inwards might actually help people feel closer to others.
Loneliness: the evolutionary gift that can kill
John Cacioppo, one of the founders of social neuroscience and a prominent researcher on social connectedness, describes how as with physical pain, the emotional pain felt from loneliness developed to warn us against the dangers of being too isolated in a world where social bonds are crucial for survival. In the book he co-authored with William Patrick, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”, they write:
“…loneliness developed as a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds. But here was a pain that prompted us to behave in ways that did not always serve our immediate, individual self-interest. Here was a pain that got us outside ourselves, widening our frame of reference beyond the moment.”
There are in fact two concepts here: social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation “is an objective and quantifiable reflection of reduced social network size and paucity of social contact.” One may be socially isolated but not feel lonely. “Loneliness is the subjective perception of isolation and not one’s objective number of social contacts”. It is the feeling of lacking desired social connection, and implies an intensity of feeling perhaps best described in the way that the 1950s psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann defined the term: real loneliness…is the want of intimacy.
Whichever measure is considered, studies have shown that continued social isolation and continued loneliness are both associated with increased risk of mental and physical illness and hastened death.
“Socially isolated individuals are at increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality….
…Loneliness itself has been linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, elevated blood pressure and cortisol, heightened inflammatory responses to stress….”
The issues are more pressing for the elderly who tend to become more isolated particularly in many parts of the developed world” “…lonely older adults have increased risk for cardiovascular disease,… Alzheimer’s disease,… and all-cause mortality …”.
Is it a big problem? Surveys based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale have shown that in the USA, nearly a third of adults don’t feel close to anyone at a given time, and in 2010 a national survey revealed a third of adults of age 45 and over reported being chronically lonely. In the UK an increasing number of initiatives are underway to tackle loneliness particularly among the elderly.
Social connection raises positive emotion & health
Just as research shows the negative effects of social isolation, there is also research showing the positive effects of higher levels of social connection. A study published in Psychological Science earlier this year shows increased social connection leading to more positive emotion and vice versa, continuing in an upward spiral and resulting in better health. In this study participants were asked to practice loving-kindness meditation in which they “learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward themselves and others.” In comparison to the waitlist control group, after 2 months of this practice they reported higher perceived social connection in their everyday lives, more positive emotions and better health. Barbara Fredrickson who led the study, says:
“The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health”.
Emma Seppala, Associate Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, talks of the importance of social connection to health and happiness here.
If social connection makes us happier and healthier, and loneliness kills us, the obvious question is…how do we get more of the first and less of the latter? Towards the end of Judith Shulevitz’s excellent article in the New Republic on “The lethality of loneliness”, she mentions how some experts are trying to address the problem by, for example, designing apps to help people learn better social habits. While this sounds safe enough, more worryingly (to me atleast) she refers to how others can imagine giving medications to treat loneliness, similar to the use of analgesic drugs such as Tylenol to reduce the pain of heartbreak.
Recent research shows meditation can also help on both fronts.
Mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness
Last year, researchers at UCLA showed that participating in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme reduced reported feelings of loneliness among older adults, compared to a waitlist control. Moreover, “knowing that loneliness is associated with an increase in the activity of inflammation-related genes that can promote a variety of diseases, the researchers examined gene expression and found that this same form of meditation significantly reduced expression of inflammatory genes.” Looking at the effects of meditation on the physical correlates of loneliness in this way is fairly new territory.
This study considers mindfulness meditation specifically, of which MBSR is a derivative. One of the neural effects of mindfulness meditation is that it reduces our automatic reactions to any perceived threat, giving us space to consider and then respond. Given this mechanism, the authors propose a theory of why MBSR reduced feelings of loneliness in the participants:
“MBSR reduces psychological perceptions of social threat or distress, and reduced distress may decrease perceptions of loneliness. As the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron suggests mindfulness meditation training can ‘turn our fearful patterns upside down’, reducing the distress that can accompany loneliness.”
Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness
Most people would benefit from feeling more connected to others, and in 2008 researchers at Standford University showed that we can self-generate feelings of social connectivity and positivity towards even strangers. Just 7 minutes of loving-kindness meditation created in its participants increased positive feelings towards strangers, compared to a closely matched control group. The increase in positive feeling was evidenced both explicitly, as reported by participants, and implicitly, measured through their actions on related construed tasks.
One of the main concerns of the study is that there is an increasing trend of social isolation and mistrust of others outside of one’s closest circle, and this circle is getting smaller for most people. Research has also shown that our response to strangers tends to be automatic, implicit, and inflexible even in the face of new evidence, which makes it a challenge to change the pattern of mistrust and emotional distance.
The findings of this study showed that loving-kindness meditation can have a small to moderate but significant effect on this automatic response for more positive connection.
Connect to self, connect to others
The recent experiments show that different types of meditation can either alleviate feelings of loneliness, or increase feelings of connection and positivity towards others. The exact mechanisms of why and how are still being studied. If one spends minutes or hours immersed in feelings of compassion towards oneself and others, it is understandable that their general mood and positivity increases, which can extend to strangers. Neuroplasticity helps to strengthen links in the brain that are repeatedly used, so if one spends more time feeling or thinking positively, this would impact their overall demeanour.
Another potential reason I find interesting is that:
all types of meditation encourage and instil an attitude of acceptance and compassion from practitioners towards themselves, and this helps to understand and feel closer to others.
Self-compassion has been defined as ‘‘being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience.’’ Higher levels of self-compassion have been linked to “positive qualities including greater coping with adversity, life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, mastery of goals, personal initiative, curiosity, wisdom, happiness, optimism, and positive affect”
The ability to be more aware of and compassionate towards our own nature, our own plights, may strengthen the same feelings towards others, as we understand more fully that we are not so different from each other.
Thank you for visiting Bidushi in 2013. Happy new year. Don’t be a stranger.
 J. David Creswell, Michael R. Irwin, Lisa J. Burklund, Matthew D. Lieberman, Jesusa M.G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, Elizabeth Crabb Breen, Steven W. Cole. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.07.006
 As (1) above
 As (2) above
 B. E. Kok, K. A. Coffey, M. A. Cohn, L. I. Catalino, T. Vacharkulksemsuk, S. B. Algoe, M. Brantley, B. L. Fredrickson.How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.Psychological Science, 2013; DOI:10.1177/0956797612470827
 As (2) above
 University of California – Los Angeles (2012, August 14). Meditation reduces loneliness.ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 22, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120814213630.htm
 Neff 2003a, p. 224, cited in :
Jazaieri, H., G. Jinpa, et al. (2012). “Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program.” Journal of Happiness Studies: 1-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z
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