Only the Lonely


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As every woman knows, men with mother issues are seriously dangerous. In the early- to mid-20th century, there was a group of such men that decided it could revolutionize the way mothers raise their children. First of all, stop kissing them — lord knows what germs you’re passing on. And really, just put them in this box that B.F. Skinner calls a “baby tender,” throw some toys in there, and they’ll be fine. Don’t pick them up when they cry, and don’t play with them — they have to toughen up some day. While the baby tender failed to catch on outside Skinner’s own family, parenting guides and doctors were telling new mothers that too much affection would weaken their children both physically and emotionally.

Luckily for the world, their reign was short. Harry Harlow arrived on the scene with a smattering of his own mother issues. He became interested in studying the importance of the relationship between infant and mother, possibly because he thought he had been pushed aside as his own parents cared for his ill brother. In Deborah Blum’s 2002 book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, she writes about the experiments he conducted on baby monkeys to construct his theory of attachment. In his most famous experiment he separated baby monkeys from their mothers and put them in boxes with surrogate mothers made of either cloth or wire.

What Harlow discovered seems blindingly obvious now, but it was quite revolutionary at the time: Babies, it turned out, need to be held. They need to be rocked and touched and cuddled, and they will do anything they can to get that attention, even from an inanimate block of wood covered in cloth. Even if the cold wire monkey feeds them, they’ll still turn to the monkey made of comforting cloth. Even if that mother violently throws her child across the room or suddenly pokes him, the child will just cling harder, and coo and mimic and smile in a desperate attempt to get his mother to love and be nice to him.

Harlow also put monkeys in isolated boxes for extended periods of up to a year and watched them come out neurotic, depressed, and completely unable to function with other monkeys. “We aren’t meant to be alone,” Blum writes. “Isolation is only a punishment. Social species — and we are undeniably that — thrive only in a garden bed of relationships and connections. Not all of us need large gardens, not all of us need traditional families. Most of us — and this comes right out of attachment theory — need at least one good bedrock relationship.”

Factors such as whether we were raised by a cloth or a wire monkey and the strength of our social network, coupled with what John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection call “genetically influenced major personality characteristics,” determine how much social stimulation we need. If the balance tips, we can fall into periods of loneliness. If those periods last too long, a chronic loneliness that can ultimately prevent you from developing the social network you need sets in. Loneliness, like hunger, is less a passing mood and more a warning signal. Ignored, it can be damaging to both your psyche and your body.

Cacioppo and Patrick write, “We had a hunch that what mattered was not the number of social interactions, nor the degree to which other people provided practical benefit, but the degree to which social interactions satisfied an individual’s specific, subjective need for connection.” They spend a lot of time explaining why they think the individual’s specific need — along with other personality traits — is genetic and not born out of circumstance, to the point of starting to sound like the new astrology. “Sorry I have such a temper — it’s just that I have a Mars in opposition to my Ascendant,” has become “It’s just that I have a 48 percent genetic predisposition to being an asshole.” Whatever the source of our needs, not having them met can tear a person apart. Loneliness can alter your patterns of behavior and thought, creating personality traits you never had, whether they are trying to blend into the furniture at a party or dominating a scene in a desperate attempt to be noticed. Either way, it will leave you even less likely to make secure connections with others, which will feed your loneliness and begin a circle of hell.

As Cacioppo and Patrick start to outline the symptoms and consequences of serious loneliness, I started to notice how frequently the word “loneliness” could be replaced with “depression.” Loneliness depresses your immune system and decreases your life expectancy, just like depression. Long periods of loneliness can lead to feelings of helplessness, just like depression. Of course loneliness is one of the boxes you tick off on the depression scale you fill out at the doctor’s in order to get your SSRI prescription. But many of the other questions (having poor sleeping patterns, being fearful about the future, feeling less worthy than others, reporting that other people seem unfriendly) can be linked back to loneliness, in addition to depression. Cacioppo and Patrick report that 20 percent of the population report loneliness as the major source of their unhappiness. It made me wonder how many people are needlessly taking antidepressants when maybe all they need is a “secure attachment” and a hug.

Loneliness could read like an advertisement for social anxiety disorder treatments, but the authors are careful to distinguish between social awkwardness — or what was known as shyness before pharmaceutical companies tried to turn it into a medical condition — and loneliness. Of course shyness does not help when you’re trying to make a real connection with someone, especially if the attempt is coupled with the distortions of perception and awkward behavior that loneliness can cause. People who are lonely tend to cling and ignore the pace that normal social interaction requires, and can also become overly self-critical. An SSRI is not going to help you there.

Since we can’t all just medicate our loneliness away, it’s time for that part of the book that tells you exactly what you don’t want to hear. Just as losing weight is a matter of eating less and exercising rather than cutting out carbohydrates or taking the new over-the-counter drug, “once loneliness becomes chronic,” the authors of Loneliness write, “you cannot escape it by merely ‘coming out of your shell,’ losing weight, getting a fashion makeover, or meeting Mr. or Mrs. Right.” You’re going to have to be nice to people and stop your destructive thought patterns. Volunteer at an organization that saves puppies. Stop expecting that everyone will reject you. Or you could spend a little time each day with a baby monkey, which is how the researchers at Goon Park helped the monkeys coming out of isolation return to a normal state. There is an action plan in the back of Loneliness to help. Follow it and you’ll eventually turn into one of those treacly people on commercials — “Feel the good feeling, mark it down on your life list and move on” — but I’m sure you can stop the program before your blood turns into sugar water.

The word “community” gets thrown around a lot these days, as if neighborhood block parties will save us from a world of loneliness. But you can still be lonely in a small town where everyone knows your name. You can be lonely in a marriage, or in a tight-knit family. Harlow’s own loneliness led to alcoholism, a failed marriage, and a period of depression so unconquerable that he was institutionalized and treated with electro-convulsive therapy. “What are the costs of belonging to a species that can never quite go it alone?” asks Blum. “How much can we actually bear? Everyone can take some loss and some loneliness, but there seems to be a point, different for each, when the burden becomes too much.”

What brought Harlow back was his family, both at home and in the laboratory. What Harlow — and Cacioppo and Patrick — have shown us is that it is impossible to grow accustomed to loneliness. But we don’t have to. We can recover and find our social networks, even those of us raised by wire monkeys. • 14 August 2008