“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who purposely chooses to be unsocial is either a beast or a god. Society is something which precedes the individual.” Two thousand years ago, this idea was asserted by Aristotle – the ‘father of western philosophy’. He claimed that the individual was nothing without a functioning collective, and those who abandoned this lacked a trait which made humans… well… human.
I’m sure that many of us would disagree with this idea. My original thoughts were also very much against it. There’s plenty of people who would prefer reading with a hot cup of coffee over hanging out, or silently entertaining their own thoughts instead of talking to their friends at lunch. But after giving it some more consideration, it came to me that what Aristotle meant was not that introverted people were subhuman. He meant that humans, by nature, require social interactions to develop properly and sustain mental wellbeing.
There are plenty of studies and historical accounts which describe the deranged mentalities of people who were placed in isolation or raised in isolated settings. One famous account was of Amala and Kamala, two “wolf girls” who were found and brought to rural India in the early 1900s. Raised by a lupine matriarch since infant age, they developed callouses from moving on all fours, ate raw meat from a bowl on the floor, and exhibited no human emotion – except for fear. Postmortem analysis of their brains also showed subnormal development, indicating that their isolated upbringing made them physiologically different to societal humans.
A more recent study into the effects of isolation was carried out by Michael “Hey Vsauce Michael here” Stevens, when he locked himself in a small white room for three days with no entertainment or way to track the time. As hours passed, the usually talkative and optimistic character of Stevens disappeared, and was replaced by incoherent rambling, a loss of social behaviour, and detachment from reality. Tests conducted after time was up also showed decreases in cognitive activity and social comprehension.
However, isolation is not just limited to being distanced from society and other individuals. In fact, an increasing number of researchers in the social and mental health fields are agreeing that feelings of social isolation and loneliness are becoming key problems in society today.
One important distinction to make is that ‘being alone’ and ‘being lonely’ are completely different things. Being lonely is a purely personal experience of psychological pain when one’s intimate and social needs aren’t adequately met. You can feel isolated while surrounded by people, yet be content when alone at home. For example, you sit with a group at lunch but they don’t interact with you in any way. People are within immediate contact, yet sometimes it feels like you’re uncomfortable, disconnected and don’t quite belong. This is loneliness.
Why do we feel lonely? To answer this question, we will refer back to our old friend Aristotle’s saying: ‘man is by nature a social animal.’ Millions of years ago, the size and unity of human communities were good indicators of how likely it was to survive. In response to this, we evolved mechanisms in our brains to desire social interaction. Supplementing this desire, there was also ‘social pain’ for when we didn’t have enough interaction – similar to hunger, thirst, and drowsiness.
When you’re ‘starved’ of social interactions, it will adversely affect your health. Regular loneliness can change how you think – causing you to perceive the social world as a threat, and as a response, sever yourself and become defensive. It exaggerates and reinforces negative thinking, and makes you interpret body language in a twisted, spiteful way. You can even feel physically hurt, as the part of the brain which social pain originates from also facilitates physical pain. When these feelings become chronic, the negative side effects are dangerously self sustaining. It’s a downwards looping spiral of feeling lonely, hating society, and shying away. It is also associated with panic and stress. Even worse, feeling lonely doesn’t only generate stress, but amplifies it.
Stress from chronic loneliness is one of the most unhealthy things we can experience as human beings.
In our extravagantly connected world, an increasing number of people are reporting feelings of constant loneliness and isolation. While the scope of this problem is growing, public awareness is not. A social stigma still surrounds it. This makes it hard for people who are feeling desperately lonely to come out and talk about it in fear of being called a ‘loser with no friends’. As people – as human beings – it is important for us to realise that loneliness is a part of our genes, and that feeling it is completely normal for everyone. Just like how we get naturally hungry when we haven’t had a break for lunch, the craving from being lonely tells us that we need to go and interact with other people. The problem comes when this feeling festers to the point where it’s the mental equivalent of starving to death.
“An individual who is purposely unsocial is either a beast or a god”. Animals get what they need from their surroundings. We get what we need from each other. Sociability is a fundamental part of what we are.
So take a risk! Have a chat with the person you sit next to but don’t really talk with in class. Try and bring positivity to wherever you go. Even if you don’t feel lonely yourself, it doesn’t cost anything to potentially make someone else’s day better. Even if nothing comes of it, that’s fine! The goal is just to make the gesture, and open up a bit. It’s a mutual benefit. Next time you’re sad because your friends can’t make it to the bubble tea shop or local Starbucks over the weekend, or when everybody is overseas for the summer holidays, remember that feeling lonely is something normal – a testament to our social origins as amazingly complex human beings.
Written by Rayman Tang
Illustration © Kurzgesagt