The effects on the body of loneliness, and kindness
Updated: Apr 29
An article in The Economist makes fascinating reading, declaring that 'random acts of kindness can prevent a downward spiral into loneliness'.
Quoting studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a conference held earlier this year in New Orleans by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the article first explains how bad loneliness is for our physical as well as mental health. It's well known that loneliness is 'as bad as being obese, and possibly as bad as being a moderate smoker'. To what extent the present enforced isolation is detrimental to our health is an even more pressing question.
A study published in 2015 by a team at UCLA showed that the pattern in people's blood of immune cells called myeloid cells 'is notably different in those who score as"very lonely" on loneliness tests compared with those who do not'.
Inflammation in the body
Lonely people have unusually low numbers, the article says, of a type of myeloid cell that generates what are known as interferon responses, which hamper viral repletion. This makes them particularly vulnerable to viral infections. They also have an abundance of a second type of myeloid cell , one that promotes the activity of genes which drive inflammation in the body – and it has been known for years that those who feel lonely experience more inflammation than those who do not.
'It seems, therefore, that though loneliness starts with solitude, it can quickly take on a physiological life if its own.' Dr Steven Cole of the study at UCLA worries that enforced isolation, brought about by the current circumstances, of those who are already living alone may create in people a state of chronic loneliness that is difficult to escape from when things start returning to normal. Those affected might become more defensive and suspicious, meaning 'the mere presence of others may not be enough to restore the status quo. Some thing else is needed too.'
Something else is needed
That 'something else' has a bearing on the significance of the work of Anna Chaplains, others in the national network and all who help keep older people, in particular, socially connected and well listened to.
A follow-up study involving Dr Cole and a psychologist from the University of California, Riverside, Sonja Lyubomirsky, carried out a series of experiments that encouraged healthy people to direct simple acts of kindness towards their fellow creatures: things like running an errand for an older person or helping with a computer problem. Participants had their blood drawn in order to examine their myeloid responses. Those directed to show kindness to others on a weekly basis had precisely the opposite gene-expression to that previously seen in the lonely by Dr Cole and his collaborator John Cacioppo.
Acts of kindness
A further study delved more deeply not only into the myeloid responses of participants but also by asking questions about loneliness. As reported to the New Orleans conference, asking lonely people to perform acts of kindness to others significantly reduced the offerer's feelings of loneliness as well as the myeloid response that drives inflammation.
Just what the doctor ordered
Volunteering to help others is clearly beneficial not only for the recipient, therefore, but for the giver as well – and on many levels. As the article concludes, 'Asking lonely people… to commit random acts of kindness to others might be… just what the doctor ordered.'
Screen communication versus face-to-face
An interesting side issue, also mentioned, is that research from a second study involving Dr Lyubomirsky has shown that, when comparing the effects of acts of kindness online or at a distance – as when donating money to funds while on screen or writing a thank-you note to a friend – such gestures showed the same benefit as face-to-face varieties.
All our current efforts to keep in touch with older people and their carers vicariously, then – through email, phone calls, letters and cards – may be just as useful (both to the writer or caller and the receiver) even if they don't feel quite as effective, or as enjoyable, to us at the time!
See The Economist, April 18, 2020, p. 64 'Immunity from being alone'.