The True Cure for Loneliness

April/May: A Nation of Neighbors

No man is an island. Except for the millions Americans who say they experience crippling loneliness every day. Not to worry—they’ve got a pill for that.

In recent months the media has been abuzz with news that scientists are developing a medication to combat loneliness and social isolation. It is the product of the efforts of Stephanie Cacioppo and her late husband, John—psychologists whose research formed the basis for the landmark book, Loneliness. Much of the Cacioppos’ work has focused on revealing the downstream effects of loneliness and social isolation, which include everything from stress, depression, and anxiety, to physical degeneration, cognitive decline, a weakened immune system, and a shortened life span. In fact, it is these very findings that led authorities to begin labeling loneliness an “epidemic.” From this perspective, it makes sense to pursue a pill that could assuage all of these negative health outcomes. If we could interrupt the biological processes that turn feelings of loneliness into heart disease and diabetes, we could prevent a great deal of suffering—as well as a great deal of expense to an already over-taxed healthcare system.

But the loneliness pill is not only aimed at downstream effects, it’s also targeting the physiological causes of social isolation. Loneliness is the sort of condition that often has the sinister feature of making it extraordinarily difficult for an individual to do the one thing that would cure it—reaching out. As anyone who has suffered from depression well knows, the solution is often so obvious, and yet so hard to reach from the dark emotional abyss that defines it. One goal of administering medication to combat loneliness is to take the edge off the social anxiety and the debilitating “stuckness” lonely and isolated people often feel, thereby reducing the barriers to social interaction.

Scientists have explored this theory with clinical trials of a couple of different substances. The first is oxcytocin, the body’s “bonding hormone,” which is released during breast feeding and physical touch. Oxcytocin cements our closest connections and makes us crave intimacy, and administering it to patients has been shown to promote pro-social behaviors. The other is called pregnanolone, a neurosteroid that has been shown to interfere with the body’s stress response—which is driven by the amygdala, the part of the brain that sounds a biochemical alarm in the face of danger. People who experience chronic loneliness often have an overactive amygdala which, if it can be calmed and the stress response counteracted, fear and social anxiety can be decreased.

Of course, there are many non-medical solutions to loneliness as well, many of which have also been scientifically validated. They include things like expressing gratitude, engaging in acts of kindness, and seeking activities and career choices that lead to purpose and meaning. Stephanie Cacioppo’s vision, it seems, is seeing people use a pill to help them work up the courage and calm to do those things. Which could lead to more lasting changes. Indeed, all of this sounds like an inspiring development; an unmitigated good. If the loneliness pill actually gets developed and makes it to market, it will be hailed as a scientific breakthrough addressing one of the most critical public health crises of our time.

And yet, as with the vast majority of medications on the market today, efforts to develop a pill to combat loneliness operate on the assumption that the underlying problem is personal one—that the root cause of social isolation lies within the brain, the body, and the behavior of the individual. But loneliness is, by definition, a social condition.

Though it certainly has the potential to relieve suffering, a pill to cure loneliness—even when accompanied by behavioral therapies—is the ultimate individualistic cure for a condition caused by hyperindividualism. The collective mindset of our society is that if a person has a problem, it should be up to him to solve it. To pull on his bootstraps—or, to modernize the metaphor, open his medicine cabinet—and fix it. But by investing our hopes, our dollars, and the efforts of our best and brightest minds in developing a biochemical solution for loneliness, we are missing the mark in spectacular fashion.

If we want to cure loneliness, we need to train our vision outward, rather than inward. The true root cause of loneliness is not an imbalance in the brain, or even an individual’s learned helplessness in the face of isolation. It is a society and culture that has ceased to value interconnectivity and relationship, or to make room for it in any meaningful way. And there’s no easy cure for that. We can convincingly frame stress, depression, and even heart disease as symptoms of loneliness—but what is loneliness a symptom of? An overactive amygdala? This is merely the brain’s natural response to living under conditions that threaten its survival. Loneliness is a state experienced by beings who are wired to connect living in an environment that makes connection increasingly difficult to achieve. So how do we change those conditions? How do we rewire our environment and our culture to make connection easier, more meaningful, and more valued? This is the great question of our time.

The paradox of loneliness is that it is a condition experienced by one person, the true cure for which can only be provided by another. The only long-lasting solution for this epidemic, therefore, is an interconnected one. It is those of us who are finding our way out of isolation—or are not yet affected by this creeping crisis—reaching out to those who are. If there is any silver bullet in this scenario, it is the radical, countercultural act of connecting. Right now. Today. Exactly where you are. In other words, what’s the cure for loneliness? You are.