John Cacioppo
Neuroscientist, University of Chicago

John Cacioppo on How to Cope with Loneliness

To embed this video, copy this code:

Why loneliness can be useful and what kinds of relationships help us cope, with John Cacioppo.

John Cacioppo

John T. Cacioppo is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago, the Director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and the Director of the Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

Professor Cacioppo is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.


Cacioppo:    One of the things we’ve learned in our research on loneliness is what a cool species we are.  It’s really…  It’s what contributes to us being human, to humanity itself.  So, it…  I think it’s great that we all experience loneliness on an acute basis.  It helps bind us together.  It helps keep us bound together.  It helps us think about other people’s perspective and empathize and care and go beyond just our own personal interests, and I think one of the things that makes us a very cool species indeed is that we can operate only out of self interest but that isn’t a very satisfying way to live, and it’s partly the story of human nature that the study of loneliness is informing that it’s part of our very nature.  It’s part of our genetic inheritance and our social customs that we care for one another, or sometimes it’s as much as we care about ourselves. 

Question: What steps can people take to overcome loneliness?

Cacioppo:    So, if one is feeling loneliness, you can ask how would, how would you climb out of that chronic grip of loneliness, and the answer is, first, to recognize what it is, that it’s very much like hunger and thirst and pain.  It’s an evolved signal because something is going wrong with you as an organism and as a species and one needs to respond to that pain cue, and the way you respond is to take the time to reconnect, and it’s not reconnecting by having 4,000 faces on Facebook, as friends, it’s having a few high quality connections, a few good relationships.  And so, one has the capacity to get out of that grip if you know what it is that it takes.  It’s not the number of friends, it’s really the quality.  And to do that, one also needs to understand what loneliness does to you and to your psychological functioning.  As I suggested, it impairs executive function.  It makes one ready to take a shorter term rewards that’s actually perhaps more harmful than the long term.  If you know that, then one can be more guarded about taking that short term benefit, knowing that it’s going to have long term cause, because one knows that it’s not actually going to help you climb out of loneliness.  To know that loneliness is associated with threat, because, evolutionarily, being isolated was very, very deadly, and onto genetically, when we’re born, we’re completely alone and we depend on others for our very survival, and that’s the case for quite a while, in our lives.  And so, there’s a fear associated with isolation, and knowing that there’s a fear and threat and that much of our reaction to other people is premised on that fear and threat is important for getting out of this.  So, one of the things lonely individuals who are chronically lonely tend to do is they want to connect with others.  In fact, brain imaging studies we’ve done show that if you saw a picture of other people, it’s the lonely individual whose visual cortical activity just lights up, right, because they’re very attentive to social stimuli.  That fits a need, just like when I’m very hungry, fast food signs jump out at me, right?  Because it fills a need.  So they’re kind of monitoring that, but because they expect to be rejected, they expect to be...  they don’t think they’re worthy of those connections.  This is all associated with others telling us what our own worth is, that they tend to withdraw.  And to overcome it, one of the first things you need to do is to get out and have contact, but do so in a safe environment.  So, people who are hungry for social contact, when they actually interact with someone, they have an underlying suspicion that they’re not worthy and they’re going to be rejected but they’re reaching out and trying to eat the person alive because they so want that contact, and, of course, that’s counterproductive.  It’s much better to think about feeding others and one’s self.  So, think about doing community service and an activity that you enjoy yourself.  I like to bicycle, so I can imagine going out and participating as someone who’d staff a table at a bicycling event.  You know, that kind of community service where you’re helping other people, and, when you do that, it’s a safer environment, and you start to find that people are in fact quite positive and grateful and it’s extraordinarily rewarding to find positive returns for the efforts you make.  And so you find that it’s not so much about eating others to fulfill your hunger for contact but eating with others, enjoying a common activity with a goal that both share.  So, getting out, contacting others in safe environments, developing an action plan…  Relationships take two or more.  You don’t dictate relationships.  Although we have unsurprisingly large influence on how those relationships fail, we can’t dictate whether there’s going to be a relationship or not.  Picking the right kinds of relationships and activities, not trying to do so much for everyone that you become overly taxed.  Much of the isolation that we see today in the society comes from people spending so much time with so many different people, all of which require intense activity for brief periods.  None of the contacts are very substantial or meaningful.   And so, realizing that, it’s really about taking a longer period of time with one or two to develop a richer, deeper relationship, and there you need to be a bit selective in your time, in the activity that’s enjoyed with the other person, and realizing not everybody’s going to be a good match.  And so, being perfectly content to say, okay, this just didn’t work out.  Let me find that individual who does share interests and for whom interactions are synergistic, where there’s something beneficial about it for both of us, knowing, knowing that there are such individuals for every individual out there.  It’s about matching, not about picking and, you know, therefore, because I’ve selected this individual, that relationship has to work out.  That’s an important feature for a lonely individual to realize, and that’s hard.  It sounds easy, but it’s actually hard.  If you’re starving, hearing that not all food is sustaining, then you can’t just reach out and grab the food.  You have to be very careful in the selection.  It’s really difficult, and so, I realize that it’s easier said than done, but that’s really, it turned out to be a critical step.  I’ve alluded to this, but selection is important.  People select, early in relationships, on superficial features: on physical appearance, on height, on… whether they’d perhaps attained their degree…  Silly things.  It turned out not to matter in the long term.  And, in fact, if you follow relationships over time, these qualities are of importance in a relationship only early.  They turn out not to be with sustained relationships at all.  It is the case that similar attitudes, similar values, similar interests, similar activities are what tends to be sustaining in the long term.  So, if one was a book reader, it might not be ideal to try to find someone who would share long terms interests and rewards at a bar or a Yankees baseball game.  I’m not suggesting that there are no book readers at those venues, it’s just that, probabilistically, one’s more likely to find those at a book club, or at a library, or at an academic setting.  So, put yourself in situations where you’re more likely to find individuals with common interests.  And, in fact, one of the new technological innovations says it’s much easier to identify local groups with common interests, with [the Internet], than it used to be, and so that’s a real important development for individuals.  And, finally, expect the best.  If you are in a positive relationship, that is, one where you’re not being exploited, you’re being rewarded, the other person’s getting rewards from the interaction…  No one treats other individuals perfectly all the time.  We don’t treat ourselves perfectly all the time, so we don’t treat our friends ideally all the time.  Lonely individuals who are primed to expect rejection can take even a perceived insult and see it as a confirmation for what they feared, and the pain is intense for them, and so, in order to protect themselves, they can distance themselves from the person so that they’re not hurt further.  And, of course, paradoxically, that makes it a self fulfilling prophecy, that they’re not going to have that rich relationship that sustained.  Once you’ve realized that, then you can counteract that self fulfilling prophecy, saying, okay, my tendency is to want to retreat.  That did hurt.  That was inappropriate.  But there’s a possibility of perhaps just having an honest discussion about it, maybe not today, but tomorrow.  Having an honest discussion and saying, but, you know, it’s okay.  I forgive.  Let’s just…  But please don’t do that again.  That turns out to be the difference between marriages that are happy and marriages that aren’t.  It’s not whether there’s a fight, it’s whether the next day the two in the marriage try to do things that bring the couple back together.  They actually expect the best of the other person.  And if we know anything from research, it said, expectations drive behaviors.  If you expect the best of your partner or of your friends, you won’t get perfect behavior but you’re actually getting better treatment from them than if you expect the worst.

Question: How do you identify unfulfilling relationships?

Cacioppo:    Yes.  So, this feeling of loneliness is a miserable feeling.  It’s a feeling of isolation.  If anyone’s been in a gym class where they were the last one or nearly the last one to be selected on the team, it’s a painful circumstance.  So, this is not subtle.  If you’re interacting with people and at the end of the day you feel drained, you know, you feel like everyone’s made demands of me and I have nothing left to give, and now I have to go home to my family and I’m just exhausted and depleted, that would be a good sign that the relationships that one had at work were not nourishing.  True social connection is energizing.  One of the…   Again, a brain imaging study we did of lonely and non lonely individuals, we showed them pictures of other individuals in happy circumstances, and what we found was that lonely individuals showed less activation of the ventral striatal region of their brain when looking at these happy social pictures than are non lonely individuals.  They rated the pictures equally positive.  It’s obvious that couples sitting there smiling is a positive picture.  It’s a beautiful picture.  They’re a pleasant couple.  So, they rate them similarly.  But the non lonely person gets less fundamental reward, the ventral stratum is part of the reward region than the lymphic lobe of the brain.  They actually receive less fundamental reward from it.  I think of a 24 hour banking versus ice cream.  Both are critical [for me].  If it weren’t for 24 hour banking, I would never have any cash.  I mean, who actually doesn’t have to go to work when bankers have hours, right?  So, it’s very positive to me, but I don’t leave the 24 hour banking setting feeling nourished, energized.  I just have cash in my pocket.  Ice cream.  When I have ice cream, you know, it’s no more important to my life than 24 hour banking, but I feel nourished.  Beyond the sugar that’s in the ice cream, it is a delight.  That’s how people are, especially who are non lonely.  And, in fact, in another study we did, we simply beeped people 63 times, randomly, throughout a week, and saw what they were doing, and, interestingly, we found lonely and non lonely just as commonly with people as not.  So, the same number of [uplifts].  The same number of positive social interactions.  And when we looked at what the interaction was, they were the same kind of interactions.  But it was the non lonely who said they weren’t as uplifting.  Well, that’s because the ventral striatal region isn’t [act, the firing] as strongly, they’re not getting the same kind of reward.  So, you can tell that you’re lonely if effectively you have all these interactions and you’re not leaving feeling more energized and upbeat as a result of it.