Loneliness Isn’t Your Fault: How Genes and Modernity Make Us Lonely

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I’m so stupid. It’s all my fault. How could I let this happen to me?

My thoughts spun like a carousel as I walked along an empty beach, somewhere in the North of Portugal. Waves crashed into the shore like relentless soldiers storming sandcastles. Hungry seagulls screamed into the salty air. Grains of sand shimmered in the December sun.

A scenic stroll, no doubt. But even the most idyllic surroundings couldn’t compensate for my internal longing for connection, the gravitational pull of loneliness.

“Try to relax!” some friends and relatives told me on the phone when I tried to explain my struggles with living in Portugal. “You’re living the dream life. Enjoy it!”

But, of course, that’s not how it works. You can’t just move to a foreign country, expecting some higher-angled sunrays to melt away your problems. It hinges on the people you meet, the connections you make. I wanted to tell them this little insight. And yet, the words remained unsaid. Simply because I was anxious about seeming unappreciative of my situation, afraid of disagreeing, opening up, being misunderstood — all these actions, I reasoned, would drive an even bigger chisel into the crack of my connections.

Loneliness sometimes works in funny ways like that. We blame ourselves, beat ourselves up and, in doing so, dig ourselves deeper into the slippery pit of loneliness.

The thing I wish I had known back then is this: Thinking about blame or fault when feeling lonely isn’t just unproductive but also wrong.

Loneliness isn’t your fault.

Seriously, it’s not your fault

It’s an easy statement to make — it’s not your fault. And so, for the longest time, I used to wave it off or merely pretend to accept it. But the real weight and meaning of it emerged to me when I rewatched Good Will Hunting on a quiet night during that Portuguese winter.

In the film, the protagonist, Will (played by Matt Damon), has a complex mind and an even more complex childhood. The results of which range from defense mechanisms to commitment issues to aggressions. One day, after Will gets into a fight with one of his former bullies, a mathematics professor feels sympathy for Will and offers him an ultimatum: Either go to jail or study mathematics and go to psychotherapy.

Will accepts but taunts every therapist who tries to help him. That is, until he meets Sean (Robin Williams). Contrary to the other therapists, Sean challenges Will’s destructive tendencies. Sean also talks about his own struggles, like his wife’s death. Slowly, Will follows suit. He begins to open up.

In one of their final sessions, Sean asks Will if he wants to talk about a recent breakup with his girlfriend. Of course, Will rejects this at first. But Sean doesn’t let loose. He wants Will to understand a fundamental truth about his past.

The following scene ensues.

SEAN (holding Will’s psychotherapy file): Hey, Will? I don’t know a lot. But you see this? All this shit. It’s not your fault.

WILL: Yeah, I know that.

SEAN: Look at me, son. It’s not your fault.

WILL: I know.

SEAN: It’s not your fault.

WILL: I know.

SEAN: No, no, you don’t. It’s not your fault.

WILL: I know.

SEAN: It’s not your fault.

WILL: All right.

SEAN: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.

WILL: Don’t fuck with me.

SEAN: It’s not your fault.

WILL: Don’t fuck with me, all right? Don’t fuck with me, Sean, not you.

SEAN: It’s not your fault… It’s not your fault…

WILL (through heavy sobbing): Oh God… Oh God, I’m so sorry…

The interaction between Sean and Will is roughly what I mean when I say loneliness isn’t our fault.

In fact, we’ll see — based on scientific evidence and personal histories — that loneliness can never be pointed to just one factor. And certainly, we can’t blame it all on our own actions. Instead, loneliness arises from an assemblage of several intertwining factors — many of which we tend to overlook when examining our own loneliness.

The good news is that we can deal with these factors. We can even learn to reframe them in a more positive light. We can choose to live with loneliness not despite the causing factors but because of them.

Perhaps it helps to think of loneliness like gravity. Yes, it pulls us down. Yes, it makes us trip or fall sometimes. And god knows, it makes washing machines unnecessarily difficult to transport. And yet, we never get the gut-punch feeling of, “Gosh, I wish I didn’t feel so much gravity.” No — instead, we can accept gravity as a natural, normal phenomenon. And not just that, we find ways to work with gravity. We build sleds, slides, and gravity-powered watches. Even the weightiest washing machine gets less annoying when we use a hand truck.

My point is, just because we didn’t cause gravity doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. Similarly, while the factors causing loneliness are sometimes beyond our control, the solutions are very much within reach.

With that in mind and drawing on extensive research, here are three of the most prevalent yet overlooked factors that make us lonely — and what we can do to loosen their grasp.

1. The genetics of loneliness

Studies have consistently found that loneliness has a significant genetic component. These studies estimated the heritability of loneliness between 37% and 55%.

Okay, so what do these numbers imply?

Here’s the short answer. When we compare two people — and one feels lonely, while the other doesn’t — genes might explain about 37% to 55% of that difference. The remaining portion (45% to 63%) might be caused by their environment — their upbringing, the schools they visited, cities they lived in, etc.

A slightly longer — and more rewarding — answer emerges when we look at how researchers reached those findings.

The Dutch twin study

In one particular study, researchers of the Free University Amsterdam observed the loneliness levels of more than 8,000 twins. Some of these twins were identical twins (meaning they share 100% of the same genes), while others were fraternal twins (sharing roughly 50% of their genes).

Over several years, the researchers repeatedly evaluated the twins’ loneliness levels based on how much they agreed to statements like “I feel lonely” or “Nobody loves me.” If, on average, the loneliness ratings of an identical twin pair were more alike than the average rating of a fraternal twin pair, then that would indicate a link between genes and loneliness. Loneliness would be heritable. If, however, the average rating from an identical twin pair were no different to fraternal twins, this would indicate that our genes don’t matter. Loneliness would purely depend on a person’s environment.

But, as expected, the study found that genes do matter.

In fact, based on the thousands of twin pairs, the researchers determined that, on average, the heritability of loneliness was 48%. This means whenever we know the loneliness levels of one identical twin, we can predict with an approximately 48% chance that their counterpart also feels lonely.

Two very important things to note:

  1. This finding doesn’t imply that we can blame 48% of our loneliness levels on our genes. If you score a 42 on the UCLA loneliness scale, it would be wrong to say that genes accounted for 20 of those points. What it means instead is this: When you score a 42 and another person scores a 27, genes might explain about 48% of that difference. It’s all relative.
  2. The heritability factor isn’t set in stone. To borrow the wording from Susan Cain’s book Quiet, our genetic predisposition is like a rubber band. There are certain limitations, yes. But no matter how long or short our rubber band is, there’s always lots of wiggle room. Genes might determine the course. But we determine the destination.

Admittedly, these findings may sound rather abstract. But thanks to them, we can ask more practical questions about loneliness. Like, why should our genes determine loneliness in the first place? And what does that mean for our personal approach to feeling less lonely?

The loneliness thermostat

In the book Loneliness, the renowned loneliness researcher John Cacioppo suggests thinking about the heritability of loneliness like a thermostat. We all inherit a certain set point of this thermostat, depending on our genes and environment. It might be “low,” allowing us to spend lots of time alone and needing few signs of connection to feel less lonely. Or it might be set on “high,” making us constantly yearn for connection — be it through tightly-knit bonds or supporting communities.

It’s crucial to understand that neither of these settings — high or low — is better or worse than the other. They’re simply different evolutionary designs.

Sure, in today’s world, a loneliness thermostat set on “low” might seem more glamorous. We would seem less needy. We could live happily on our own. Could travel wherever we wanted to — without depending on others to enjoy the trip.

But here’s the thing.

Loneliness thermostats set on “high” have also survived eons of evolution. Thousands upon thousands of iterations. Which means they must’ve been useful for survival. Think about it: on the ancestral planes of the Savannah, it would’ve been naïve to assume you could survive alone. Not just that, it would’ve been tricky to reproduce, let alone find a community that defends, feeds, and cares for you and your children.

Luckily, though, evolution cranked up the loneliness levels.

The benefits of a “high” loneliness thermostat

A higher tendency to feel lonely means a higher willingness to establish productive social bonds and maintain them. Since loneliness triggers a hypervigilant response, it also means that you can respond to dangers — like hungry predators — more quickly and alertly when you haven’t got social backup.

Loneliness is an evolutionary superpower.

True, hungry predators are mostly a concern of the past these days (except, of course, when the Nashville Predators are looking for their next win). But even in modern society, we might see how a “high” loneliness thermostat can be useful. It’s a sign that we cherish connection, community, and relationships. And it equips us with the sensor that sounds the alarm when those values are not being met.

But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Cacioppo’s thermostat analogy is that there’s nothing wrong with us when we have a genetic predisposition to feel lonely. What’s more, there are countless plausible scenarios in which a “genetically lonely” person leads a life of nourishing relationships. Ultimately, it always takes an environment to trigger a genetic predisposition, just like it takes water to trigger the solubility of a sugar cube.

With all this in mind, we might start to see loneliness, to some extent, as a mismatch between your personality and your current environment. If you have a genetic predisposition to feel lonely, it doesn’t mean you’re fated to feel lonely. The far more likely alternative is that your current environment simply doesn’t fit your thermostat setting.

2. ‘Non-tribalism’

I often returned to that coastline in northern Portugal. The walks helped me decipher how I ended up in such a lonely situation, although, at the time, I still hadn’t come to grasp the full extent of my loneliness.

As my feet sank into the wet sand one day, I unraveled my newest theory of how loneliness was all my fault: I used to have the perfect environment for feeling connected and yet, I gave it all up for my individualistic crusade of self-realization. I’m too self-important. Too individualistic.

Before moving to Portugal, I had lived in a medium-sized city in the north-east of Germany. I shared an apartment with two roommates who weren’t my closest friends, but nonetheless, they emitted a soothing ambiance. They were never disrespectful. Always affable. My best friends lived down the street. There was a direct train connection to my dad and my grandmother. It was a breeding ground for connection…

…until I escaped on my selfish mission to Portugal.

The link between individualism and loneliness

Is it really that simple, though? Does modern individualism actually make us lonely? And could we solve this problem by turning to a more collectivist approach?

As usual, research can provide clues.

One study, for instance, examined the loneliness levels of 36,715 respondents from 30 countries from all continents (except Antarctica — probably because loneliness is nearly a given down there). Then, they sorted the countries by “collectivistic” or “individualistic” cultures and compared how the two categories affected loneliness levels.

The findings surprised the researchers.

“The most unexpected of our findings,” the authors write, “… is that members of a more collectivistic country are less prone to loneliness.”

But wait a minute.

Why is this a surprising finding? Isn’t this exactly what we would expect? More collectivism means more community. More community means more social support. And more social support means more connection.

Well, until it doesn’t.

Turns out, it’s hard to say whether individualistic or collectivistic cultures feel more lonely. Many studies leading up to the one in question have actually found that collectivistic cultures are more prone to loneliness.

Why is that? The trademark of collectivistic cultures is that people, on average, tend to value group belonging more than independence. They’re also more likely to adopt their family values when making decisions.

It’s not hard to see how this can cause loneliness. When the ideal for a functioning social life is set high, we’re quicker to feel lonely when we don’t meet that ideal. What’s more, we might suppress our wish for self-actualization by forcing ourselves into a tight box of values, norms, and expectations. A lost connection to ourselves can also make us lonely.

Moreover, loneliness expresses itself in different dimensions in these two categories. Here’s how one study describes the most prevalent predictors of loneliness in societies:

“In collectivistic societies, the absence of interactions with family was more closely linked to loneliness than was the case in individualistic societies. Conversely, in individualistic societies, the absence of interactions with friends and having a confidant was more closely linked to loneliness than in collectivistic societies.”

So, as long as the research isn’t conclusive, we might as well say that neither collectivism nor individualism makes us particularly lonely. We can assume that the real driving factor of loneliness in any society is far simpler:

The general sense of lacking people we can count on.

The non-tribalism of the 21st century

No matter how we twist and turn it, the fact remains that we need people. Yes, we need them to varying degrees and intensities, but we need them. Humans are inherently social. We need a tribe. As John Cacioppo puts it in Loneliness:

“If you asked a zookeeper to create a proper enclosure for the species Homo sapiens, she would list at the top of her concerns “obligatorily gregarious,” meaning that you do not house a member of the human family in isolation, any more than you house a member of Aptenodytes forsteri (Emperor penguins) in hot desert sand.”

So, the real factor at play here is what we might call “non-tribalism.” That is, living without a tribe of people we can consistently rely on — and depriving ourselves of capabilities or opportunities to establish such a tribe.

My decision to move to Portugal was a stellar example of non-tribalism. It was neither collectivistic nor individualistic. It was anti-gregarious. Stretching the zoo metaphor, it was as if I voluntarily moved from the enclosure of gregariousness into a cage of isolation. Of course, I only knew this after moving to my new enclosure. I had been baited by the promise of freedom, happiness, and professional success.

What I found upon arrival was loneliness.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the point isn’t to beat yourself up about it. Instead, I’d suggest — as cliché as it may sound — extracting a lesson from it. The point is to ask, “Why do I feel connected in one situation and lonely in another?”

Seven months after living in my Portuguese cage, I finally realized that the cell door had never been locked. I was free to leave. I moved back to the enclosure of gregariousness.

I went on a mission to find my tribe…

3. The alienation of modern existence

…and failed. At least in the beginning. After returning from Portugal, the next period of profound loneliness came when I started to study philosophy in Munich. Sure, there’s the natural loneliness that comes with moving to a new city and traversing unknown university campuses.

But this loneliness was a different type of beast.

For the first time in my life, I noticed how the philosophical footwork of the past centuries systematically tried to prove that we’re lonely by design.

I think, therefore I am lonely

I think, therefore I am,” uttered the French philosopher René Descartes in 1637. This is not just one of the most famous conclusions in the history of philosophy but also an incubator of loneliness. See, to arrive at his conclusion, Descartes doubted everything — the existence of others, the world, and God. The latter was a risky assumption at his time, so Descartes later tried to prove God’s existence — based on illogical arguments, however.

Nevertheless, Descartes’ reasoning massively shaped Western thoughts and beliefs. For instance, one artifact we still subtly encounter daily is the idea that mind and body are separate entities. This idea is so enfleshed into our thinking that we find it hard to imagine it differently. We still don’t have a commonly accepted word that describes — and acknowledges — the intelligence of body and mind as a shared entity.

Regarding loneliness, Descartes’ thought heritage is problematic because it presents humans as fundamentally disconnected beings.

Following Descartes’ reasoning, we might as well be brains in jars, and everything we see is an illusion. Moreover, there’s a clear hierarchy here: mind over body. We tend to view the mind as the puppeteer and the body as its puppet — a robotic dummy, neatly cut off from the world around it. As a result, most of us find it hard these days to respect our whole being as a spiritual presence that flows in communion with the cosmos.

Once again, it also puts all the blame on us. If all we experience stems from the doctrine, I think/I am/I exist, then loneliness is inevitably the fault of that “I.” Worse, it assumes that the end of loneliness must also spring out of the “I” rather than “us.”

Feel lonely yet?

The poet Allen Grossman neatly summarizes these implications in his fittingly titled poem Descartes’ Loneliness:

Toward evening, the natural light becomes
intelligent and answers, without demur:
“Be assured! You are not alone. . . .”
But in fact, toward evening, I am not
convinced there 
is any other except myself
to whom existence 
necessarily pertains.

When Descartes concluded his famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” he didn’t just prove his own existence but also the loneliness of it.

The death of God

Roughly two hundred years after Descartes, another philosopher came along and decided to give academics a collective headache.

“Gott ist tot,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1882, causing an intellectual earthquake — the aftershock of which lasts until today. God is dead. But Nietzsche’s intention wasn’t to disprove sacred beings nor celebrate atheism. Instead, he simply observed that — based on recent scientific advances — we don’t necessarily need to believe in a God anymore. We can afford to live without one.

And this was, in fact, highly problematic for Nietzsche. He predicted the rise of nihilism. It probably wouldn’t have surprised him that soon after his death, destructive ideologies would take the world by storm: communism, capitalism, nationalism, Nazism.

So, what if all these ideologies are simply desperate attempts of the human species to feel less lonely?

That’s precisely what Hannah Arendt would come to conclude. In her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes:

“… totalitarian domination as a form of government … bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

In other words, the ideal condition for totalitarianism is a lack of shared experience, the absence of a common ground. Alienation. Which is to say, mass loneliness. Is it any surprise that populism and right-wing parties are on the rise amidst our modern loneliness epidemic?

How an omnipresent companion can soothe loneliness

Recent studies have found that religious people (when they’re religious by choice) feel less lonely because they can see God as a constant, unshakable friend and companion. Of course, this doesn’t replace our inherent need for human connection altogether. But, as one meta-study concludes, religion can help us “substitute the purpose usually derived from social relationships.”

Interestingly enough, the meaning of “loneliness” used to be much closer to “oneliness,” as the historian Fay Bound Alberti observes. “Oneliness,” Bound Alberti writes in A Biography of Loneliness, “was often contextualized as a religious experience, for it allowed communion with an ever-present God.”

Why feel lonely when you know you have a friend in the heavens, watching you from above?

The lesson here is not that we must become religious and spend the rest of our lives in monasteries (although, of course, that’d be one legitimate path). As we’ve seen with the downsides of collectivism, overly tight doctrines such as those imposed by many religions can also contribute to our loneliness.

But we might, at the very least, start to explore new ways to establish communities, new ways to find collective meaning. Religions might offer, in some aspects, a reasonable blueprint for this. As the modern philosopher Alain the Botton writes in Religion for Atheists:

“Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism … remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together or in ceremoniously washing a stranger’s feet or in sitting at a table with neighbors and partaking of lamb stew and conversation …”

A letter to my lonely younger self

I still think back often to those beach walks I took while living in Portugal. Reflecting today, it almost seems naïve that I blamed myself for feeling lonely when there were so many factors at play.

The funny thing is, after years of loneliness, what helped me find genuine connections — or at least progress toward them — were the lonely periods themselves. They equipped me with first-hand insights into my loneliness and my need for connection.

For instance:

  1. I learned that my loneliness thermostat is a tricky piece of engineering. I have a profound need for community and belonging, but at the same time, I sometimes need several days without human interaction.
  2. Based on the realization that I had been recklessly abandoning tribes in my early twenties, I committed myself to staying in one place — come hell or high water. I committed to not just finding a tribe but creating one. I stayed at university, where — despite Descartes’ self-important “I” — the feeling that typically emerges is “us.”
  3. I can neutralize the alienation of modernity with rituals of connection — like meditation, community suppers, and weekly board game nights. Although I don’t believe in god, I find that reading books by certain authors provides a similarly sacred companionship. It’s a bond I can access until I manage to reconnect to social relationships. Moreover, I gave up on overly reflecting on the meaning of life and now try to immerse myself in whatever life has to offer.

Perhaps all this is nothing but a long letter delivered to my younger self by a time-traveling seagull as I strolled along that lonely coastline. And perhaps the final words of that letter would say something like this…

Loneliness isn’t your fault. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re experiencing a completely normal human reaction to a mismatched situation. You’re not too individualist. You haven’t yet met some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever have known. You will find your tribe. You will find meaning. There are ways out. There’s hope.
PS: Rewatch Good Will Hunting.

This article was originally published on Wise & Well.