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on August 18, 2008
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I just finished reading Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, which is coming out towards the end of August. The book summarizes, in very accessible terms, thirty years of work by John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago and his colleagues.

It's initially hard to get past the title. William Patrick, John's coauthor, relates how a friend reading an early manuscript found the word "loneliness" to be disturbing, even more so than "rape," "murder," or "death." This reaction fits perfectly with the major theme of the book-we humans are a very social bunch, and being cut off from other people, as in solitary confinement, might be the very worst punishment of all.
What I especially liked about the book is the constant, seamless integration of what we call "perspectives" in psychology, harkening back to William James. In other words, the neuroscience, social psychology, and cognitive science is all woven together so that you get the big picture. In other writing, John has compared psychology to a symphony, with the different perspectives contributing to the whole of our understanding just as the score, musicians, instruments, and conductor join together to produce fantastic music. He and William have definitely succeeded in bringing this integration to the study of loneliness. Given the all-too-frequent Balkanization of psychology into little subdomains, this approach is refreshing and informative.

Like William's friend, I found myself feeling sad at times while reading the book. I don't consider myself a lonely person, as I am blessed by having a close family and good friends. But I know a lot of lonely people, and reading the various case studies brought these people to mind in a vivid way. The sad mood lifted, however, when John would throw in some of his modest and self-deprecating humor, as in his description of his trip to "Grenada." Enough said. You need to read the book to find out the rest.

In spite of the sober topic, I think many people will jump at the chance to learn more from this book. My mother-in-law, over at our house for lunch, snatched up my copy and asked to borrow it. My daughters are pre-ordering theirs on Amazon. Kristin has mentioned that loneliness is such a huge issue for her soldiers, not only while they deploy, but even more so when they return to families who can't begin to relate to the things they've seen and done in combat. She's hoping that John will take a look at the vulnerability of soldiers to PTSD as a function of their initial loneliness scores, following up on research listed on the Loneliness site.

Best of all, the authors do not stop after describing the origins and implications of loneliness. Instead, there is a careful, thoughtful, step-by-step approach to reducing one's own loneliness. Following the recommended steps is never presented as a magic bullet, or a quick fix, but just a practical way, grounded in good science, to move from point A to point B. No matter how lonely or not lonely you feel, there are suggestions here to make the social aspects of life more meaningful.
Finally, I'd like to end by pointing out that these authors really do practice what they preach. The website for Loneliness has a menu feature called "socialize." In one of the blog entries, William Patrick describes how John insisted that he should be a "full co-author," instead of receiving his usual credits.

For those of you on Facebook, hope you join the Science of Loneliness group. There's something inherently ironic about that statement, but I hope to see you there soon. --Laura Freberg

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
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on January 13, 2009
The best part of this book are the scientific insights about how loneliness works and how it damages people. I learned many things I had never heard of.

I found it easy to read and well-written. It is interesting throughout, although sometimes it strayed far enough from the topic to leave me wondering how it got there. I must admit I didn't read it in one go and sometimes stopped in the middle of a chapter.

One of the blurbs claimed the book was funny. The only thing I found funny is when it compares lonely people, who find it harder to control themselves, to Phineas Gage, a worker who had a metal rod rammed through his brain. There is a nice drawing showing where exactly the rod went through. This is an exceptional feat of black humor, but I'm not sure it's intentional.

Another blurb, by no less than Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi (I love his book 'Finding flow'), claims that after reading the book you will never have to be lonely again. The book does make some attempts at giving advice, but never sounds very convincing. The authors are researchers who excel at understanding how loneliness affects people, but they don't seem to have much experience in helping them. They don't sound like they ever had this problem either.

The end of the book addresses the growing loneliness in the United States, and mentions some ways society has found to cope: mega-churches, virtual communities like Second Life, the corny fad of 'random acts of kindness'. Oh the horror. I've been through times when loneliness was almost unbearable, but I'm not sure I've ever been that hopeless.

I will definitely read that book again.
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on January 23, 2010
There is some interesting novel research in this book (some of which you can read about online by searching for the main author "John Cacioppo"). Without a doubt John Cacioppo has done some extremely interesting work.

This book describes studies that hint at loneliness reducing our ability to tune out distractions, reducing our ability to complete "logical reasoning tasks", and reducing our ability to pursue long term rewards rather than immediate gratification. It is fascinating. I also found the descriptions of the physical effects of loneliness on health to be extremely interesting (increased morning cortisol and adrenaline etc.).

So if the research was what I was rating, I'd give it 5 stars. But unfortunately, I am reviewing the book and must give it 3 stars. Because, although not difficult in terms of content, this book is very poorly written. It goes off on useless tangents only marginally related to loneliness. I would be happy to read about chimp and bonobo society, in this particular book, if the authors actually related it in any way to the topic at hand which is loneliness. But the astounding thing is: they don't! They just drop one line in about loneliness in that chapter and think that is relating it! And half the book is like that, going off on one irrelevant tangent after another.

I think perhaps a coherent connection between all these different topics may exist in the author(s) head(s) but that they don't do a good job of drawing that connection out for us, and so we just end up with a bunch of scatter-shot irrelevancies. I wonder if, ironically, the incoherence of this book is caused by it's dual authorship. If so I don't think it in any way refutes the main point of this book which is that people function better when socially well integrated and socially content. But it does serve as an example of where two heads are not better than one!

This is a popular science book and not a self-help book, and so it is light on advice on what to do about loneliness. I both very much respect the scientific orientation of this book (when it stays on topic) and I wish it gave more advice. I guess I wish this book filled a few more of the pages it wasted on unrelated tangents with advice on what to actually do about loneliness. The advice it does give, while supposedly based on the science in this book, is again only marginally connected to it by the author(s), and so is in my opinion, at best mediocre. I think there is a lot of wasted potential there.

So in summary: the studies in this book may be a diamond, heck they may be the Hope diamond. They really are novel and startling to me. But they are lying in the landfill called this book. Is it my executive control or is this book disorganized? I think the correct answer is: this book is disorganized!
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on March 3, 2011
In a 2006 report published by the American Sociological Review, 25 percent of the people surveyed felt they had no close friends in whom they could confide. This number doubled the findings of a similar report published in 1985. While I'm pretty lucky - I have several close friends whom I can trust with my personal problems - I have noticed a change in my social life since I moved to California a decade ago. It used to be easy for me to make friends. I would just live my life and somehow bump into like-minded people and develop close friendships. In the past ten years, I've noticed a shift in this. I can still meet people easily enough, but finding meaningful relationships, ones that go beyond small talk or a once-in-a-blue-moon lunch meeting, take a lot longer to gel.

Apparently, I'm not the only person who's having this problem. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by University of Chicago professor John T. Cacioppo and former Harvard University Press science editor William Patrick use examples of everyday people and their struggles with loneliness. Along with scientific studies, historical anecdotes and a smattering of humor, the authors paint a fully-rounded picture of the mental, emotional, physical and societal issues caused by social isolation.

This isn't the first mainstream book to examine the current dwindling of conventional social outlets in the U.S. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam, addressed the lack of social connection in America. While Putnam's book looked at the sociological ramifications of Americans not bonding in social groups (like bowling leagues), Cacioppo's book looks at the personal problems caused by nonexistent (or superficial) social interaction. Loneliness can cause physical pain as well as emotional pain, and some it may cause life-threatening problems like heart disease in extreme cases.

The need to relate to others is intrinsic to humans, it's in our genes, Cacioppo writes, peppering the book with examples from sundry characters throughout history. He writes about the only surviving member of an African tribe sent to America to perform in a World's Fair. Shortly thereafter, his tribe back home were killed. Now left alone in the world, he was unable to adjust to a new life in the Christian world. Another story relates the tale of a seemingly affable man who had ulterior motives for that friendliness. The psychological ramifications of childhood trauma, past bad relationships and other emotional disasters eek their way into us so that even as adults, some people have difficulty connecting with others. The stories interwoven in this book illustrate that in real life terms the reader can understand.

For a self-help tips, people struggling with loneliness should check the step-by-step guide in Chapter 13, Getting It Right. It lists a number of ways to work on alleviating loneliness. It's not about segueing from nights watching TV by yourself to being the life of the party; it's about meaningful social connections. As Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection stresses, it's about the quality of relationships, not the quantity.
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on October 25, 2008
Not an easy read, but worthwhile. Comprehensive use of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to explain a lot of what causes psychic pain, as well as attraction and aversion in social settings. Demonstrates that loneliness may well be a more accurate and useful diagnosis than depression or anxiety. Well documented sources. Not an easy-to-read self-help book, but worth the effort because of the understanding that can result.
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on September 3, 2013
The books explains the loneliness and the problems associated with it. I've dealt with this problem since I moved to the US at the age of 17. Like mentioned in the book, I had all the symptoms of loneliness: low-self esteem, shyness, anger, distrust against other (even against ones who always try to help me). After I finished the book, I realize some of my problems. I am also glad to know that there is nothing wrong in being lonely from a psychological point of view. But being lonely for a long time will have long-term damage as the person ages. Recommend this book to anyone who has loneliness problems.
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on August 31, 2013
The Macro

On the scientific front, Loneliness is a phenomenal work. It provides evidence that loneliness is not just an ephemeral emotion that we feel from time to time, but rather a DRIVE analogous to hunger and thirst. To this end, Cacioppo cites more studies than you'll probably be able to digest, but he makes his point. He goes out of his way to convince us that loneliness is significant, even apart from other issues like depression. He shows that it matters biologically, and has easily measurable physiological effects, and even explains why it matters on a societal and national level.

Cacioppo talks about a concept he calls "co-regulation," which describes how humans regulate their internal emotional states through interpersonal interaction. He professionally specializes in a field called "Social Neuroscience," and I think this is his primary valued added on the topic. No one else writing about this subject would spend so much time examining how our internal state is so heavily regulated by our communal environment.

The Micro

Cacioppo also talks about dealing with loneliness as an personal experience. He says: "The most difficult conceptual hurdle for people in the throes of loneliness is that, although they are going through something that feels like a hole in the center of their being--a hunger that needs to be fed--this hunger can never be satisfied by focusing on 'eating.' What's required is to set aside the pain...long enough to feed others."

He implies with this and many other statements that lonely people need to learn better to GIVE rather than TAKE.

However, earlier he describes a study in which lonely and non-lonely people were asked to listen to the problems of another person. He says the lonely people displayed just as good social skills, and actually stayed with the conversation longer. In other words, the lonely people--surprisingly--were MORE successful at active listening. This doesn't jive beautifully with Cacioppo's image of needy people who fail to properly give.

Early on he describes a turn-of-the-century African tribesman who was put in a zoo in the United States. Later, the tribesman was freed and was given a job and a decent life. In the end, though, the tribesman's loneliness drove him to kill himself. Perhaps that tribesman could have taken Cacioppo's advice to be more "open to others," but somehow I doubt that would have mitigated his loneliness. He could have given half a sandwich to a homeless man (as one of Cacioppo's friends did), but somehow I think the tribesman's sense of isolation ran a little deeper than personal stinginess.

I have been chronically lonely for 10 years, and most days I hope for death. I make friends easily. I have past friends and present family numbers who would be thrilled if I picked up the phone right now and called them. But I know from experience that after I speak to any of these people that I will feel even lonelier. Not one of these people shares my values or my beliefs, and not one of these people will genuinely understand whatever struggle I happen to be going through at the moment. They will have good intentions, and they will try to be helpful, but no matter how articulate I am they won't understand what I say. I wrack my head every day trying to figure out why they can't and what I'm missing.

The net result is that Cacioppo's advice feels patronizing and insulting. It's surprising to me that although Cacioppo has had lonely test subjects coming into his laboratory for years, and despite all his praising of human empathy, he nonetheless possesses a truly mediocre understanding of the experience of loneliness that those test subjects feel.

In sum: good on the macro, bad on the micro.
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on January 13, 2014
This was a great read, although it gets a bit academic at times. Granted, that was the point, so I can't really fault the authors for that. As one with a preference for fluid prose, I did find the way they incorporated the scientific evidence to be a bit disruptive. However, if you're looking for a great explanation of the importance of social connection, and the consequences of the degeneration of such connection, I highly recommend this book.
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on April 19, 2009
This book was a revelation as to why I've been having troubles in my work life. I've got great personal connections, but have been working in relative isolation for the last year and a half. (Trying to start a nonprofit from a home office.) My great personal connections have helped me to keep going in a very demanding work situation. But I haven't been able to work up to my potential, and have been wondering why it always feels like I'm swimming upstream. Have been feeling professionally isolated, but have kept telling myself to suck it up and deal and get on with the work.

This book has given me the key to the problem--isolation dampens executive function of the brain. So I'm arranging for a business mentor to meet with me regularly. I'm confident this will work because when I earned a PhD, I floundered on my dissertation while working with an advisor who said, "just send me the chapter when its done." Once I switched to someone who would meet with me once a week and seemed genuinely interested in my ideas (i.e., we connected through great idea conversations), I flourished and finished up in good time.

Thanks to the authors! I'm planning to send the book to a number of isolated individuals I know and love... I wish all professors in a position to advise individual work were required to read it, too.
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on April 21, 2016
I'm extremely impressed by the thoroughness of research that went into this. The well-qualified authors explain everything clearly and make a strong case for the importance of cultivating a satisfying social life to avoid mental, emotional, physical and behavior issues. The focus on the person's perception of loneliness rather than the actual social life is a useful element in the mix.
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