There is understandably an increased concern since the Covid-19 pandemic that more people have been left feeling lonely. However, is loneliness all it seems? It is defined as a perceived lack of social relationships but research has found loneliness is more complex than that. This post looks at literature that has indicated that there is a correlation to wisdom and cognitive function and feelings of loneliness. Fortunately for us, wisdom can be cognitively developed, and in turn help us experience loneliness in a more healthy way.
What is loneliness?
If you listen to the news, read a magazine, or read a journal article, loneliness will be described as a painful feeling of being alone. Sometimes it is linked to social isolation although most research makes a distinction. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone but not always physically being alone, like social isolation. There is even a Minister for Loneliness (UK) as the prevalence of feeling lonely is increasing. It is always seen as distressing and unwanted and most often linked to wanting more social interaction than is currently available. Interventions to alleviate it tend to be around improving social connections, social prescribing, or cognitive therapies to help a person reframe their thoughts about their circumstances. Interventions that are based around social prescribing are not always very successful however. Something else is going on.
Thinking about loneliness- cognition
There is a growing body of research that is looking at the role of cognition in feelings of loneliness. Not everyone who is lonely is without friends and family, and not everyone who is alone feels lonely. It is becoming clear to researchers that loneliness in very complex and very individual. How on earth do we find ways to help people? One way is to understand what might be happening in the brain.
Research indicates that the more we develop our ability to use complex and abstract thinking patterns, the more likely we are to be able to cope with life. Children develop cognitive complexity as they get more and more experienced with life, which helps ward off loneliness and depression. Conversely, when cognitive function declines it is correlated with an increase in feeling lonely.
Wisdom is a multifaceted construct, and there are different theories around this. However, research on loneliness defines wisdom broadly as having emotional regulation, positive emotions, pro-social behaviour such as compassion, ability to self-reflect, being decisive when dealing with uncertainty, and spirituality.
The research found a clear inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom, meaning the more wisdom a person has the lower the levels of loneliness. It was also found that general health, such as good sleep was also higher in people with high wisdom and low loneliness. What was also found in some studies was having social relationships was not the most important part of it, but simply feeling connected, such as through pro-sociality. In other words, people could be wise and not lonely even when spending lots of time away from other people (and some people actively stayed away from people) but they still have lots of purpose and compassion. One study even found that the more diverse the gut bacteria, the more wisdom and least loneliness!
Ways to increase wisdom to decrease feelings of loneliness
There are a number of ways we can create more wisdom in society. Teaching people to regulate their emotions, develop resilience and the ability to cope with uncertainty and challenges, be more compassionate to others, especially helping others in some way. Mindfulness is a good way to develop compassion but also to be more self-aware. Being self-aware is also good for regulating emotions.
Another way is to keep learning. The higher the education level achieved, the lower the levels of loneliness and higher the levels of wisdom. This may be because education teaches to think critically, a sign of conceptual complexity. If you don’t want to do a formal course, make sure you are reading and doing things that stretch you and make you think. Get involved in a debate or become a mediator. Volunteering to help your community will also increase your sense of purpose. And don’t forget the gut bacteria. Make sure you eat healthily as a poor diet may increase feelings of loneliness!
Jeste, D.V. et al (2020). Study of loneliness and wisdom in 482 middle-aged and oldest-old adults: a comparison between people in Cilento, Italy and San Diego, USA. Aging and Mental Health
Lee, E.E. et al. (2020). High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor. International Psycho- geriatric, 1-6
Nguyen, T.T. et al. (2021). Association of loneliness and wisdom with gut microbial diversity and composition: an exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychiatry
Paredes, A.M. et al. (2020). Qualitative study of loneliness in a senior housing community: the importance of wisdom and other coping strategies. Aging and Mental Health
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