Monday, November 30, 2009

Loneliness (book review)

book cover: Loneliness

Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick
Paperback 317 pages, $ $ 17.95
August 2009
ISBN: 978-0-393-33528-6

Ashley Montagu, who died in November ten years ago, explained to his students and lecture audiences an insight that has proven to be not only very true, but very wise. Montagu said that the inspirations of creative individuals — poets, authors, artists, philosophers — are eventually confirmed by science. For example, when a poet such as Edmond Rostand makes his hero, Cyrano de Bergerac, shout:

I need to fight whole armies all alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms;
I feel too strong to war with mortals —

This extraordinary courage that love inspires is glimpsed by the poet; years later the scientist can tell us that strong emotions, such as love, produce powerful physiological changes in the human body and brain.

That is the first theme of the book Loneliness: loneliness, like sleep shortages, impacts not only our emotions, but our physical health and well-being. More than 60 million Americans suffer seriously from this epidemic condition. In addition to a thorough and well-documented diagnosis, the book provides solutions that are within the reach of almost everyone.

I never imagined that a book about loneliness could be so entertaining: almost like the good cheer of the famous foot-stomping folk song, "The Ship Titanic". These pages contain many bursts of humor, and many memorable passages. It will be a long time before I forget the astounding saga of Phineas Gage; even longer before I forget the book's description about how a female chimp (page 211) ingeniously made peace between two belligerent males.

The book proposes that there are three keys to happiness: Social connections; Household income; and Age. Surprisingly — and this may be the most controversial of the book's claims, — "people get happier as they grow older."

Maximizing genuine relationships, while minimizing conflicts, is a strategy for personal and professional success. What is the cure for loneliness? ... Develop strong social connections.

From the book (page 223):

As I've suggested through dozens of examples, when we feel isolated we also feel embattled, which leads to less robust health, less enjoyment in life, and less of an ability to collaborate to find winning solutions. When we feel satisfied with our social connections, we feel safe. When we feel safe, we can think more creatively. We also anticipate and more often experience positive emotions, which, aside from their long-term physiological benefits, provide immediate and persistent psychological uplift. That boost in mood affects our subsequent behavior toward others, which, in turn, affects how others behave toward us — which, once again, encourages creative collaboration. Cause and effect cycle back and forth, and the positives continue to ripple outward in a widening circle.

This roadmap to a long and healthy life is corroborated in a book about longevity, The Blue Zones; and also in a number of my own books about child maintenance, where I have called this process, the Positive Affirmation Cycle.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Society is poison but solitude is fatal." Loneliness does not address Emerson's concerns, echoed in works by Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom), and Philip Slater (The Pursuit of Loneliness). What shall we do when the society around us is destructive or "inauthentic", and we are confronted with two unpleasant choices: join the masses in their folly, or remain alone?

Nevertheless, the book Loneliness by Cacioppo and Patrick, is filled with such a superabundance of subtle humor, excellent scholarship, and practical advice, it stands alone as one of the most valuable books in print about its all-important theme.

For more information, visit the book's companion website: Science of Loneliness.

— Michael Pastore

Story Links

On December 1, 2009, many major publications released in-depth articles about the theme of loneliness. Here are more resources about this theme.

Time Magazine,8599,1943748,00.html

U.S. News

NY Times

Washington Post