If I understand this paper and the research correctly, we can think of loneliness not merely as a lack of social interaction but a failure within that social interaction:
“Lonely and non-lonely individuals were just as likely to interact with other people, but for lonely individuals the interactions were of poorer quality and provided less support and comfort (Hawkley et al., in press).”
Calling this “poorer quality” which is true but not sufficiently descriptive, I think that we could conceptualize of stress as something creates a certain burden upon me. There is the difficulty of the event causing the stress itself (I have to complete a project but lack time to complete it), but there is also a secondary element: when I bring my stress to you, I can offload the effects of that stress: we can more easily bear a difficulty when we understand that someone else cares about our stress. This is so even if other person in the interaction is unable to effect any change in the external circumstance which causes the stress. Just the fact that someone else knows and sympathizes with my stress creates a reduction of stress.
Should I bear some particular burden but have no one to whom I can unburden my heart, each interaction comes itself another form of stress: I am being hurt. No one cares that I am being hurt, which is a second stress. So we can conceptualize loneliness as a combination of two stresses: a first event which causes stress, and a second event when I cannot sufficiently interact with others concerning my stress.
“Stress has tended to be treated as if it represented a single mechanism, although, in fact, it represents a family of mechanisms that serve to mobilize and defend the body ( e.g., fight or flight). Each mechanism comprises a different set of operations that could contribute to higher levels of stress in the lives of lonely than nonlonely individuals. According to the
added-stress hypothesis, loneliness is associated with perceptions of social rejection and exclusion, which are themselves stressors that produce negative affect and lowered feelings of self-worth and, in turn, promote chronic elevations in activity in the sympathetic nervous, sympathetic adrenomedullary (SAM), and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) systems.”
There are a couple ways in which this could be understood the reason that “poorer quality” interpersonal interactions constitute an additional stress: (1) I expect that someone will care about me enough to share in my stress. (2) Stress is a kind of burden which we can off-load to others. I am stressed about completing some task. You cannot relieve the stress of my task, but your sympathy creates a state in my mind which makes easier to bear the stress. How exactly is that stress easier to bear if it is distributed?
Distributing the stress to you reduces the stress to me. Being unable to distribute the stress creates a new stress. As said above, it seems from this paper, but also from human experience, that an effective distribution of the stress through social interaction is effective even if there is no ability in the friend to alter the external circumstance.
What precisely makes social interaction effective to alleviate stress? While an expectation that someone else would care about my circumstance and then finding that there is no one to whom I can unburden myself would explain an increase in stress, it does not explain the reduction in stress should I be able to find a a friend. What if I come into contact with no one, would that make my loneliness no longer an additional stress?
It is unquestionable that isolation constitutes a vicious problem.
Let us imagine that I possess stress as an object, a weight. I expect that someone will care about the weight of the object. I tell someone about my stressful circumstance and the stress become less. But if no one cares, the burden of the object becomes greater. The defeat of an expectation would be sufficient constitute a new stress. But this explanation is insufficient to explain how speaking to someone lessens the weight of my stress.
If I do find someone who cares, the weight of the original stressor lessens even if no weight from the burden is actually distributed to any other person. If I have to complete a project at work and tell you and you sympathize, you still have no burden transferred to you. The distribution is largely free to you, and results in reduction to me.
So this raises the question, why does a “positive” interaction with you effectuate a reduction of my stress? Romans 12:15 tells us to weep or rejoice with the one who weeps or rejoices. Perhaps this makes the issue clearer: If someone good happens to me, I do not experience the full weight of that good unless it can be shared with another person. Also, if someone weeps with me, even this other does not need to directly bear the burden of my loss, the loss is made less difficult.
So rather than think of loneliness as merely the ability to offload the psychological weight of a circumstance, loneliness is also the inability to share in a benefit.
Loneliness is then the lack of anyone with whom I can share my experience. Loneliness is thus not the pure weight of human interaction. Loneliness is the inability to have find anyone with whom I can weep or rejoice.
We can thus raise the question: Why is it critical that I have the ability to share my pain and joy?
This also tells us something about the church and the new life, the transformation of one’s mind as a result of the work of God (Rom. 12:1-2)
This then raises another question for the Christian: why does loneliness exist in the church? Isn’t the presence of loneliness a defect in the functioning of the church?