In 1975, the social scientist Robert Weiss dubbed loneliness a disease “wholly without redeeming features.” To some extent, this is true. Any lack of intimacy, closeness and connection is painful, and it can take its toll on the human body–driving up blood pressure, accelerating aging, weakening the immune system and even acting as a precursor to cognitive decline, according to research from the University of Chicago.
An evolutionary psychologist would explain these effects by arguing that we are social animals who suffer when deprived of contact. But there’s another, more pervasive factor at play: shame. In a romance-fixated culture, loneliness means failure, and this social stigma in itself drives isolation.
But loneliness is a lot more common–and useful–than people think. Current studies suggest that more than a quarter of American adults experience loneliness, independent of race, education and ethnicity. For many, this triggers a state of hypervigilance, generating an intense alertness to the outside world.
This state has its benefits. A powerful desire to make contact can drive artistic creation; Edward Hopper and Franz Kafka, for example, routinely explored themes of loneliness. And for others, heightened sensitivity to the gaps and gulfs between people inculcates compassion, building empathy. Loneliness is not a rogue state, after all, but part of the rich fabric of our shared lives.
Laing is the author of The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
This appears in the March 14, 2016 issue of TIME.
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