Loneliness and Our Social Brain

How is your happiness project at Yale going? a friend recently asked. It’s going great! I’m reading the best book ever, I replied. It’s on loneliness. Huh?

John Cacioppo

Loneliness and happiness may seem like strange bedfellows, but the University of Chicago psychologist and social neuroscientist John Cacioppo does an excellent job of defining loneliness as a basic human drive for social connection. In his book called Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, he writes:

“Feeling lonely at any particular moment simply means that you are human. In fact, a sizeable portion of this book is devoted to demonstrating that the need for meaningful social connection, and the pain we feel without it, are defining characteristics of our species,” (p. 7).

Although there is a biological or a neurological basis to feeling lonely–i.e., some people are more prone to feel lonely–Cacioppo insists that  we all have “the ability to self-regulate the emotions associated with feeling isolated,” (p. 14). We should not confuse the experience of feeling lonely with our response to that loneliness. The trickiest parts about loneliness is that it affects our social cognition. Feeling lonely can lead us to perceive negative signals from other people, triggering a negative feedback loop of more loneliness and worse health. Although “having to cope with loneliness when your persistence is impaired by loneliness seems awfully unfair,” (p. 46) Cacioppo gives numerous examples of how we can alter daily routines to try to build up social connection. Learning self-regulation and thinking ahead about our daily plans are key to fighting loneliness.

Throughout the book, Cacioppo does an excellent job of describing the biological and environmental factors that lead to loneliness without falling into a simplistic genetic or environmental determinism. For example, he writes:

“Like any number of other characteristics, the genetic propensity for desiring social connection and the propensity for feeling social pain in its absence are transmitted though bits of genetic information in our cells, coded as instructions for making proteins. The expression of those genes is dependent on environmental circumstances, whether real or merely perceived. Some of the proteins take the form of the hormones that carry messages in the blood. These messages serve to integrate different organ systems and to coordinate behavioral responses. One of the hormones is epinephrine, which can flood us with the cluster of sensations we know as arousal. Another small protein—the hormone oxytocin—promotes breastfeeding, soothing calm, and close connection.  Other genetically orchestrated proteins give rise to neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which can elevate our mood or send us into despair, depending on the concentration in the brain. The genes provide the chemical carrots and sticks that guide behavior, but they depend on the sensory systems to actually interact with the environment. Signals that the senses receive from the environment trigger changes in the concentration and flow of these hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals serve as internal messages to prompt specific behavior—and this is when the genetic instructions at long last appear as individual differences in levels of anxiety, or agreeableness, or sensitivity to feelings of social isolation,” (p. 66).

The next time you hear a genetic or environmental explanation of behavior, I hope you remember that paragraph and pause to ponder how the social, environmental and genetic all interact. Genes establish a propensity. We experience our genetic propensity to connect with others or isolate ourselves through all kinds of micro activities in the brain. Our environment—both what is really in our environment and how we perceive that environment—influences how our genes express themselves. Our social connections (or lack thereof) influence how our blood stream registers emotional or physical arousal. For example, we can produce hormones like oxytocin that help us feel a bond with others. Other proteins can profoundly elevate or destroy our mood. All these micro responses are carrots and sticks. This multitude of little responses interact with our environment, or at least how we perceive the environment. It’s the combination of all these bodily messages that lead to states we call anxiety, sensitivity, or feeling agreeable.

Somebody recently commented that studying human biology is easier to measure than human sociality or the human environment. But if our responses to environmental and social stimuli have real effects on our biology, shouldn’t we follow Cacioppo’s lead and put those responses into a the complex environmental and social contexts we all live in? Too often we quickly jump from identifying a biological basis for a particular behavior or emotional to a biological solution to whatever problem we associate with that behavior or emotion. But understanding our biology as elastic helps us understand Cacioppo’s concluding chapters, which focus on how we can influence of social and environmental context to decrease loneliness.

Cacioppo recommends you EASE your way to social connection.

E:  Extend yourself. Volunteer. Reach out. Give to others.

A: Action plan. We can’t change everything about our situation. But we can change our thoughts, behaviors, and expectation. Those small changes can have big ripple effects.

S: Selection. The antidote to loneliness is high quality relationships. You may have few or many relationships, but it’s quality not quantity that matters.

E: Expect the best. Let go of self-protective, isolating behaviors.

My quickest fix to loneliness is to play with kids. Kids are not embarrassed by their need for connection. Even if they are timid at first, if you play with a kid, pay attention to them, and make eye contact, you will likely be rewarded with big hugs, kisses, and giggles. Those are the small things that add up to big neurological responses. After reading about loneliness, I know why a big hug and wet kiss from young child makes my heart pound. Holding a newborn baby turns my brain into such mush that I instinctively babble gibberish while bouncing the baby in my arms, something we both seem to enjoy it. It almost brings me to tears to put the baby down, especially if the baby himself sheds tears when I let go of him. I love Cacioppo’s suggestion that loneliness among the elderly can be reduced by increasing their contact with children. That seems like a win-win situation.

Cacioppo also points out how our built environment contributes to isolation. We live in smaller and smaller familes in bigger and bigger houses further and further away from other people. Our jobs require us to move once, twice or even more than that. Each time we move we rupture those social connections that feed our social brains. Can we sacrifice square footage in our homes order to live in more dense communities? Can we go out of our way to make new connections when we move?

You are not the only one feeling lonely out there. If you reach out, I suspect your invitation to volunteer together, start a neighborhood association, or a book club will be met with enthusiasm. And you will all be happier and healthier because of your greater social connections.

Small Acts of Love Go a Long Way

Guest Blog by Christina Bradley. Yale Class of 2016. Member of the Calhoun Happiness Project.

February can be a dreary month; especially amidst the snowstorms and midterms. However, love was in the air Tuesday, February 4th, as the Calhoun Happiness Project discussed Love 2.0 by Barbara Fredrickson. One of the leading researchers about positive emotions at UNC, Fredrickson’s words presented our group with a new spin on a familiar emotion. She states that,

“Love is that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being.” (p. 10)

This definition confused many of us. Fredrickson was not speaking about love in the grandiose way many seem to view this word. Rather, she spoke about it at the micro scale.

Frederickson’s book was recently covered by CNN.  And she presents her work here:

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Our group was now forced to ponder how to demonstrate love in small ways. Opening the door, smiling as others pass. We discussed the meaning of saying hi to someone and looking them in the eye. Many of us mentioned that being aware of those around us and present during situations, may give us the best chance at experiencing these micro-moments of love. The discussion became very interesting when we started to question whether we agree with Fredrickson; can small, positive moments between two strangers be considered love? Fredrickson is trying to get readers to think about this large concept in a new way.

Maybe bringing love to a smaller scale may bring more smiles to our faces. Maybe a friendly wave or a gracious act, when considered love, could bring a new element to an interaction with a stranger. Maybe the recognition of these micro-moments of love is really what the world needs.

Christina blogs here: “I’m Ready”.  She is varsity soccer player and a member of various groups at Yale dedicated to promoting well-being:

InspireYale - http://inspireu.org

Flourish - http://flourish.commons.yale.edu

Happiness Challenge - http://thehappinesschallenge.org

Atonement and Resilience

How can the concept of resilience be applied to atonement between victims of crime and perpetrators of crime? Last week, I visited a class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor called The Atonement Project where we discussed that very question.

Atonement activist Shaka Senghor

The class is the brainchild of Shaka Senghor, and he has worked with The University of Michigan and the MIT Media Lab to make his dream a reality.  As he recounts in this TedX Midwest lecture, Shaka was incarcerated as a teenager for taking someone’s life in a drug deal. How did he become so hardened that he pulled the trigger during a fight? How did his dreams of become a doctor go awry on the streets of Detroit? How did he turn his life around and become a proponent of atonement? As Shaka explains, no person should ever be considered beyond recovery or rehabilitation. As he tells in his memoir, Writing my Wrongs, for Shaka, uncovering his pain and learning to atone for his mistakes came through reading and writing.

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Along with my dear friend Professor Ashley Lucas, Shaka guides 16 students at the University of Michigan in a class on The Atonement Project. Ashley has been visiting prisons for the last 20 years to see her father. And she has written a play based on interviews she did with family members of incarcerated persons called Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. She has done countless creative arts workshops inside prisons. And he has co-authored a book on women prisoners, Razor Wire Women.

Professor Ashley Lucas Through the Visiting Glass

Through their class, Ashley and Shaka reach out of their own pain to students who are willing to reach out to prisoners, their families, and victims of crime. The students go out in groups of two or three either into prisons or into communities affected by violence and crime and run creative arts workshops—painting, literature or theater. Their goal is to re-humanize people whose humanity has been harmed. Their energy and commitment was a tremendous inspiration to me. My last words to the students was that their work is a witness to a world that wants to shut itself off from other people’s pain.

I shared with the students about my own research among Haitian immigrants, and my recent research on young adults who have had traumatic life experiences. I asked them to read my favorite article on resilience, Chapter 1 of the Handbook of Adult Resilience, called “Resilience: A New Definition of Health for People and Communities,” by Alex J. Zautra, John Stuart Hall, and Kate E. Murray.I also assigned a blog by positive psychologist Robert E. Quinn where he answers a prisoner’s question about how focusing on the good can help his life that has been so full of bad.

Here are some students’ comments about the reading and discussion.

“I must have underestimated the human capacity to make something bad into something good. What stuck with me about our conversation about resilience is the universality of it. From Professor Mooney’s work in Haiti to our work in Michigan prisons, it is clear that human beings do not need to be ‘psychological superheros’ to respond to hardship with transformation. Hearing her speak about community and individual resilience restored my sense of purpose in regards to the Atonement Project. If I can convince people to hold on to hope through creation (art, theater, writing), I will have done my job well.”

Beautiful, sister!

“I really appreciated learning that from her [Margarita Mooney’s] numerous interviews with victims of violence or poverty, that it is often people who have less or people in non-Western cultures who are more accepting of people’s suffering and help build resilience as a community.”

So true!

“The first question I asked in regards to resilience is about its opposite effect. Might resilience be a bad thing, I thought? Why should people be happy about adapting to traumatic situations? After we discussed the notion of ‘hope’ with regards to resilience, I realized I was talking about something else. My concerns are regarding what is called ‘learned helplessness’ and that is different than resilience… Without this hope as a positive outcome, a person would always stay stuck in the box of suffering which becomes a defeatable attitude. Professor Mooney said that she is amazed how material hope is. That makes good sense to me.”

Wonderful! Martin Seligman would be proud that you know what learned helplessness is and how it differs from resilience.

“Recently I’ve been thinking about expectations of resilience, especially in terms of our interactions with people who have experienced trauma. I think it’s important to look for the little signs of resilience, in lieu of expecting great gestures. A smile, a willingness to talk about one’s challenges, positive social interactions, embracing one’s emotions (be they sad, angry, happy), empathy—these to me are the subtle signifiers of the resilient.”

Beautifully written!

“I think resilience is a highly relevant skill to have, not only in our own Atonement Project but also in much of life. Previously, I had thought resilience was just the ability to ‘bounce back’, but upon our class discussion with Margarita Mooney, I have learned it encompasses much more than that. We discussed and read about how resilience is often incorporated into entire communities, not just within the self…I remember reading before class that resilience takes into account our vast range of emotions/experiences, not just a lack of negative and a desire for positive outcomes.”

So glad you now have higher expectations that bouncing back!

“Resilience applies to my work with the Atonement Project because the two exist simultaneously. Both resilience and atonement require an acknowledgement of the situation, the pain and suffering and adversity that you are going through, or that you have inflicted upon another, of interior self-reflection. They work in a very cool circular relationship. Atonement is both an act of resilience, as well as a step towards resilience. It goes beyond the idea of just getting by in the face of adversity. Resilience is an act of taking life into your own hands.”

Yes, reflection is key to both atonement and resilience. Brilliant!

“Margarita’s discussion on resilience was eye-opening. The point that she mentioned that struck me the most was the way the United States learned to only desire the good emotions, while desiring to completely eliminate the bad ones. However, if there is any lesson that I learned here, it is that resilience—this notion of seeing the good through the bad—is so incredibly essential to human connection.”

Absolutely. Connection to other human beings requires a willingness to share their pain, not ignore it.

“Resilience is more than just getting back to zero or having overcome and physically surviving adversity. Resilience is a state of mind that requires having awareness about future positive events. You can’t just survive something tragic—you need to have the state of mind to move forward in a positive light. This doesn’t mean to forget what has happened but to learn from it. In order to even being to atone you need to have this resilient state of mind to understand that there are positive things ahead. Conversely you need to atone to be able to move on and see the positive.”

Resilience is not forgetting but transforming. Well put.

“I learned that resilience comes in different forms of manifestations. Whether you are resilient depends on your environment, personality, etc. Being resilient doesn’t mean simply getting back to ground zero, but rather continuing to move along and grow and prosper in your life. The talk left me uneasy about the line between what role mental illness/depression/drug addiction plays in resilience. I am continually astounded by the resilient people who surround me every day. It makes me believe that the human psyche is capable of anything.”

Thank you. We should keep talking about mental illness/depression/drug addiction and resilience.

“I learned how expansive the process of resilience is. Not only is it overcoming one’s trauma but it also means sustaining that positive outlook and going beyond just getting past an event. I want to bring this into the Atonement Project by encouraging a goal-setting mindset. Goals, a positive future, maintain and sustain this resilience. Getting over what landed you in prison is not enough. It is necessary for you, who you’ve hurt, and your community to ‘get over it’, come to terms about it TOGETHER and set goals to sustain this positive approach.”

Resilience only occurs with others. TOGETHER. Amen.

“The idea of resilience as a forward momentum, as an affective engagement into the future, is a concept I will take with me not only into the prison workshop but throughout my life. I will honor the challenges and struggles I’ve faced as opportunities for developing new capacities, not merely as set-backs.”

Keep moving forward, and let those setbacks make you stronger!

“I thought that resilience brought me a new perspective on atonement. It made me think how a person almost needs to reach resilience before they can reach atonement. Resilience is a very difficult process and I think it’s very important for the human psyche. Resilience gave me a new perspective when I think about the people we work with and what they’ve been through. I think resilience can bring people together to overcome difficult obstacles.”

Resilience is difficult and rewarding indeed. Preparing a talk on resilience and atonement was challenging for me, but as you can see from these comments, it was extremely rewarding. Thank you for your inspiration and witness.

Googling Tradition

Instructions on mantillas can be found at wearyourmantilla.blogspot.com

Dear Google: Can you tell me how to put on a mantilla? My stifled laugh turned into a snort when the young woman standing behind me in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome desperately asked Google about an old-fashioned Catholic tradition. After Vatican II, lay women mostly stopped covering their heads before going into Catholic Churches. Even many religious sisters abandoned the habit. In the swarm of thousands of people waiting to get into St. Peter’s for Christmas Vigil Mass in 2012, women’s hair flowed abundantly.

The elegantly dressed Latin American woman behind me spent 30 minutes trying to cover her hair with a lace mantilla. Every time she thought she had succeeded, her mantilla slid down the side of her head or the front of her face. Clearly she was trying on a tradition she didn’t normally practice. Her last resort was to turn to Google for help. Her struggle with the mantilla reminded me of the book “Tradition in a Rootless World,” in which Lynn Davidman describes how Jewish women in New York embraced an orthodox Judaism. Free to choose whatever they want, young Jewish women chose traditions their elders spurned. Similarly, it is mostly younger Catholic women today who wear a mantilla to Mass.

I like to practice old traditions, too. One time I even wore a saree to the baptism of an Indian-American Catholic baby. Would you like the Gujarati wrap? my Indian hostesses asked me. Apparently it’s different from the Malayalee wrap. I had no idea that different ethncities in India wrapped sarees differently, but since I had a choice, I requested the Burrito Wrap.

What’s the Burrito Wrap? When I make burritos, I lay the tortilla flat and add the beef, cheese, and assorted condiments. Then I wrap, wrap, wrap, wrap and finally flip! You have a perfect burrito: nothing sticking out.

Not so with the Gujariti saree wrap. First I tried on the petticoat and walked into the living room to show everyone. As I twirled around showing off my Indian clothes, one Indian man gave me a puzzled look, took me by the arm, and led me upstairs. That’s an under-garment! You don’t go out in that! he explained. I thought petticoat was a fancy word for skirt. But upon closer look, I realized I was wearing a transparent, lace-covered slip meant to protect the exquisite saree, not my purity.

Already beet red, next I put on the “blouse.” That’s a funny name for basically a sports bra with short sleeves! Pull, pinch, pin those sleeves tight! Your torso can hang loose but not your arms!

On top of that sports bra with tight sleeves plus a slip, two Indian ladies wrapped me in six yards of sequined saree material. Flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap; flip, twirl, wrap. The saree was finally on me, but my mid-riff was still exposed! Sarees are carefully designed so that you can wear the same one your whole life, so all the extra material got crammed into my waist. I looked pregnant.

How can I go to a Catholic Church with my torso exposed and carrying four yards of material on my belly? Could you wrap me up like a burrito, I pleaded? You know, use all that material to support my flab rather than accentuate it?

You look great, they reassured me. You don’t need a Burrito Wrap! Wanting to please my hosts, I smiled and posed for some pictures. The wrapping ceremony took so long we were late for Mass and parked far away. Rushing across the parking lot and up a big hill, I didn’t want to get the bottom of the saree dirty or trip on it. So I bent over, picked up the saree, and carried the bottom of it by my waist.

What are you doing?!?!? Two Indian men chided me. Huh? I queried them. You can’t pick up your saree like that!!!! We can see your ankles! It made no sense that my torso could be bare but I could not show my ankles. I was terrified that if I tripped on the hill, the precarious wrap would come undone. I pictured myself rolling down the hill with all my juicy cheese sliding out of the wrap, just like when I mess up my burritos. I stared defiantly at those gentlemen who spent the morning confused about how to wear their own traditional garments. I kept the saree by my waist until I was safe on level ground.

Once inside the church, I kept twirling around, trying to use all that flowy material to create my own Burrito Wrap. I never succeeded, and was quite relieved to take the saree off that evening. Comfortably back in their own Western clothes, my Indian friends confessed that they had only worn sarees three times in their whole lives—and mostly since they left India.

Why does a woman outside St. Peter’s ask Google to instruct her on a Catholic tradition she was never taught? Why do migrants in the diaspora adopt traditions they barely observed back home? Traditions are an important part of our collective identity. Special events like a trip to Rome or a baby’s baptism are occasions where we want to symbolize our religious or ethnic group belonging.

We mostly take our traditions for granted; so much so that many youth today feel rootless and search for traditions. One freshman I taught could not relate to Victor Frankl’s inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning because he felt like he belonged to no meaningful tradition. The survivors of the Holocaust camp Frankl described found meaning in their families and Jewish faith. But this student had been told his whole life to define meaning for himself. I was stunned to hear an 18-year old complain that he is tired of being told to define the purpose of his life. How can his life have meaning if he doesn’t belong to a group that teaches him about meaning? he asked.  He didn’t have a religious identity, an ethnic identity, or any group identity. Consequently, his life lacked one core element of meaning. The next year, he joined a fraternity. He reassured me that his desire to join a fraternity was not to have drinking buddies but to belong to a group that gave his life meaning.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that personal narratives need to be embedded in traditions and institutions that give our lives collective meaning. Religions, nationalities, ethnicities and universities with their many fraternities, sororities and sports teams all remind us that our lives have meaning as part of a narrative that is bigger than ourselves. Wearing a mantilla, a saree, a fraternity shirt or a college baseball cap links us to a group.

Embracing someone else’s tradition is a symbol of respect for their group. So despite my nervous debut wearing a saree, when I was invited to an Indian-American wedding, I bravely asked my Indian-American friend to help wrap me in my saree. Google didn’t have instructions for a saree Burrito Wrap, but we found a pretty cool You Tube video where an Indian woman teaches an Indian-American woman to be a “good Indian girl” by putting on a saree.  We laughed and acted out the scene. When I walked outside, my neighbors stopped to take pictures of me in my gorgeous saree. You too can turn to YouTube to learn how to be a good Indian girl. Check it out right here.

Previous generations rejected traditions in favor of individuality. But for many young people raised in today’s society that exalts individual autonomy, where our personal identity is malleable, and where our closest relationships change frequently, there is something very appealing about traditions. Even when you have to Google a particular tradition, even when a tradition is not from your own ethnicity, and even when others hardly practice those traditions anymore, traditions link us to other people. Traditions link us to a past and to a future. Traditions look good in Facebook pictures.

Can an individual life be meaningful without any tradition? Perhaps no more than a baby can survive on his own. Traditions help fulfill man’s search for meaning, a quest that is essential to being a person, and a quest that must be fulfilled in relation to others. What are the traditions that give your life meaning? What social practices tie you to others?


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