A research report says that loneliness is widely prevalent among Americans and that it has serious health implications; however, the authors have something positive to say about the condition. It will not be so desperate, they say, if the person susceptible to loneliness has wisdom. Wisdom alleviates the effects of loneliness.
The general sense of isolation was also more common than the researchers expected. Nearly three-fourths of all study participants reported moderate to high levels of loneliness, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego.
According to report on CNN.com, Dr. Jeste is quick to clarify that loneliness is subjective.
“Loneliness does not mean being alone; loneliness does not mean not having friends. Loneliness is defined as 'subjective distress.' It is the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have,” he said.
The reduced life span linked to loneliness is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, Jeste noted in the study's introduction. The study also found that the feeling of loneliness peaks during three phases of life: late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s.
The study also confirmed the finding from earlier studies that loneliness is associated with declines in physical health, mental health, and cognition.
The most surprising – and promising – finding, however, is the inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom. Jeste and his colleagues defined six components of wisdom as general knowledge of life; emotion management; empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness; insight; acceptance of divergent values; and decisiveness -- the ability to make quick, effective decisions when necessary.
The authors suggest developing these traits to guard against loneliness.
Another expert, Dr. Anthony Ong, who is unrelated to the study, says the focus on wisdom as a protective factor is "novel, but more research is needed to clarify the mechanisms underlying the reported association between wisdom and loneliness."
Dr. Ong is a professor of human development at Cornell University and a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Dr. Jeste agrees that more research is needed to nail down the attenuating effects of wisdom on loneliness, but says we now know that the effects of loneliness are more under our control than thought earlier.