I recently read an amazing story about a family of religious zealots who were afraid of persecution in Russia – rightfully so since their peers kept being killed – and may have overreacted just a bit. The father led his wife and two children into the woods, continuously heading north into the Siberian forests where no other human ever treads. By continually setting up shacks for the winter and heading north in the brief summer, the group eventually settled down permanently more than 150 miles away from any sort of even minor civilization.
Eventually, a group of geologists spotted the settlement from a helicopter and made contact. Though the two additional children who had been born in the wild and never seen another person were a bit freaked, the man and two eldest children eventually warmed up to the intruders. Over time, they became friends, though they never did leave their lonely lifestyle.
The story ends with everyone in the family ended up passing away, except the youngest daughter, who chose to remain in her life of religious solitude even though the geologists vacated the area.
Damn. That girl had to be lonely from then on out. And besides the obvious perils associated with living in the Russian tundra alone with zero technology, loneliness has its price.
In a recent study from the Ohio State University, researchers found that lonely people show signs of a dysfunctional immune system, having a large probability of harming overall health. The group piggy-backed on two other studies being conducted on breast cancer survivors and over-weight, over-the-hill men. Both studies included questionnaires to determine levels of loneliness and blood samples to analyze overall health.
For the sake of brevity – and my sanity – let’s skip the details and hit the highlights. Those scoring the highest on loneliness tests showed increased levels of latent herpes virus reactivation and produced more inflammation-related proteins, both of which are sure signs of a compromised immune system. What’s more, these elevated levels are identical to those shown people undergoing chronic stress. Connecting the dots, being lonely is a constant stress of animals such as us that are designed to be social.
And while elevated levels of a few markers might not seem like such a big deal, those levels go hand-in-hand with more pain, depression and fatigue symptoms. What’s more, these same lonely people responded quite negatively (biologically speaking) to stress tests involving speaking in front of a crowd and solving math problems in front of a panel of judges.
What’s the point of all this? Sure, you could focus on the negative, and say being lonely is terrible for your health. Or you could flip the angle, and make this whole body of research a positive.
Having a good attitude and being the social monster you were born to be can have a dramatic positive effect on your health.
The studies were presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans by Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University; Christopher Fagundes of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research (IBMR); Juan Peng of the College of Public Health; Jeanette Bennett of the Division of Oral Biology; Ronald Glaser of the Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics; William Malarkey of the Department of Internal Medicine; and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of the Department of Psychiatry, all at Ohio State. Bennett, Glaser, Malarkey and Kiecolt-Glaser are also IBMR investigators.