Chronic loneliness is on the rise. But how can this be when we’re more connected now than ever? In today’s show, Dr. J.W. Freiberg, a social psychologist-turned-lawyer, explains that loneliness is not an emotion like happiness or anger. It’s a sensation like hunger or thirst.
Join us for an in-depth discussion on the cost of feeling disconnected even when we’re surrounded by people.
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Guest information for ‘Loneliness’ Podcast Episode
J.W. Freiberg studies chronic loneliness through the unique lens of a social psychologist (PhD, UCLA) turned lawyer (JD, Harvard). A former assistant professor of social psychology at Boston University, he served for decades as general counsel to more than a dozen Boston social service agencies, adoption agencies, and scores of private mental health practices. In his new book, Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation, Dr. Freiberg shares case studies mined from his law practice to illustrate dysfunctional bonds that can lead to chronic loneliness. In the book’s award-winning prequel, Four Seasons of Loneliness, he explored chronic loneliness resulting from isolation and disconnection. For more information about all of his books, visit www.thelonelinessbooks.com.
About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Loneliness’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today, we have J.W. Freiberg. Dr. Freiberg studies chronic loneliness through the unique lens of a social psychologist turned lawyer. In his new book, Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation, Dr. Freiberg shares case studies mined from his law practice to illustrate dysfunctional bonds that can lead to chronic loneliness. Dr. Freiberg, welcome to the show.
W. Freiberg: Thank you so very much.
Gabe Howard: You know, Dr. Freiberg, we are here to discuss loneliness and I promise we’re going to get to that. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask your thoughts on the differences between being a social psychologist and a lawyer. What’s that like?
W. Freiberg: Well, it proved interesting for me. I became a social psychologist first and I was a professor for a decade at Boston University, and then I had a chance to go across the river and go to Harvard Law School. So I wasn’t going to turn that down. I became a lawyer, and then it pretty quickly became clear that criss crossing the two expertises gave me a field of work that was unlike anybody else. No one else in Boston had both degrees. And that pretty quickly became what was sort of called around town, the psych lawyer, Boston’s psych lawyer. So institutions and agencies that had anything to do with psychiatry or psychology or clinical social work asked me to be their general counsel. And it was in the context of being general counsel that I heard about so many clinical cases, and that became the material for my research.
Gabe Howard: You define loneliness differently from others. Can you tell us about that?
W. Freiberg: Indeed, what I felt I discovered over thirty-five years of being counsel to a great percentage of Boston psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers was that they kept reporting more and more loneliness. Sure, their clients had other issues as well, but the clients kept talking about being enormously disconnected from others, not having anybody to live with, anybody in their life, nobody to call. More and more as the years went by, loneliness became ever more present. So I started to think about this topic, and the more I researched it, it struck me that loneliness is not an emotion like anger or happiness. It’s a sensation like hunger or thirst. So just as our body tells us we’re hungry or thirsty, it also says, Oh, I feel really lonely and disconnected.
Gabe Howard: After hearing that definition, it makes a little more sense, this next statement, because you consider chronic loneliness a public health crisis of the first order.
W. Freiberg: The surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general, about a decade ago, said, we are actually experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. About 35% percent of the American population in 2010 reported feeling chronically lonely. And what I mean by that, we all feel lonely from time to time. How could we not? But that’s not like being chronically lonely, just like being sad is not like being clinically depressed. There’s a huge difference. Chronic loneliness is in the land in the last 50 years ever more so, and it correlates with much worse health and much shorter lifespan. So it’s serious.
Gabe Howard: It sounds very serious, but one of the things that I keep thinking about is people are enmeshed around other people. I mean, we have social media. So even when you’re at home, you’re around other people. We work in offices now. I know COVID has changed that a little bit, but I just I’m trying to think of the last time that I was truly alone and I can’t come up with it. Even as I sit here interviewing you, my phone will ding. I’m never not surrounded by people. I guess my question is how can people still feel so lonely, given how connected our world is?
W. Freiberg: Well, that’s the key question, because there are two pathways to loneliness, one pathway is being all alone, being isolated, being disconnected, but a different pathway is being surrounded by people, just as you described, but not benefiting from those relationships, not feeling nourished, not feeling nurtured, not feeling soothed. Sometimes people are objectively lonely because they’re all divorced off from anybody. They don’t have anybody in their lives. But just as many people become chronically lonely, surrounded by others, but in an unfulfilling way.
Gabe Howard: There’s a quote that I use to describe living with bipolar disorder, which is alone in a crowded room, and, you know, I just say I’m surrounded by people, but I feel utterly alone. And for the purposes of my analogy, I’m talking about, like, you know, what it’s like to, you know, have this misunderstood illness. And, you know, it’s like all these people are in my life. But are they? And people have a hard time understanding that. And it handcuffs people a lot. They’re like, well, you can’t be alone in a crowded room. And I’m like, no, no, no. It actually makes sense. If you think about it. It’s just we need to do more on loneliness, because I, I do think that a high up reason for suicide is hopelessness. And one of the things that drive hopelessness is this idea that you’re all alone in the world and that nobody will miss you
W. Freiberg: Yeah exactly.
Gabe Howard: You want the pain to stop and nobody’s going to miss you. So I think loneliness is a huge issue that people just chalk up to personality. Well, go make some friends. That’s what I hear all the time. Go make some friends. Join a club.
W. Freiberg: No, you’re exactly right, because we have some powerful research on suicide attempts in the United States, I forget the percentage, but it was getting near two thirds of people who attempt suicide succeed in the sense that they were only attempting suicide, didn’t want to kill themselves. They wanted attention to their issues.
Gabe Howard: Right.
W. Freiberg: And when we asked people who attempted suicide, what’s up? When we try to learn from that subgroup of people, they have exactly what you described, one or several key relationships that they just couldn’t do that to. But what they were really doing is crying out for help. Their choice of language is a little drastic and dangerous. So what you said is absolutely correct. And by the way, when we study chronically lonely people, and we have some very powerful tests that we can use to test loneliness. If anyone listening is interested in how their own relationships are doing, I have these tests on my website, my website called TheLonelinessBooks.com or my name, JWFreiberg.com, that’ll take you there. You can test to see how your relationships are, whether they help you feel safe and nurtured and soothed or not. You can really see about how the quality of your connectivity to others in general. And then you can work right through each of your major relationships and see how they’re doing and where you could improve them. But when you use those tests on people who are chronically lonely, what we learn is about, you know, magnitude, something like half of chronically lonely people are from objectively disconnected backgrounds. They really don’t have anybody in their lives. And the other half are people who are surrounded by others. But subjectively, they feel completely alone.
Gabe Howard: Speaking of research, you have five main modes of disconnection that you identify in your book. Can you tell us about those?
W. Freiberg: Sure, so when I looked at more cases, I literally took the files out of the cabinet, I had about fourteen hundred files from different relevant law cases and I started piling those that had to do with loneliness. And there were sort of five patterns that stood out. One was obstructed connections. Sometimes people are just too busy to relate to one another. The constant phone calls, late nights at the offices, doing a thousand things at once kind of society that we’ve become. Sometimes people are just too busy. And I have a case in the book about two parents who were so busy, each with their own career. One was a mayor and the other was a financial investor. And they were too busy to pay attention to their wonderful little 10-year-old son.
Gabe Howard: But it’s also kind of heartbreaking, right?
W. Freiberg: Yes, of course it is. So that’s one way of being lonely. Even though you’re surrounded by others. Another way is a one-way relationship. Sometimes people enter relationships with very different goals in mind, and that can lead to a relationship that doesn’t work. One person is thinking that they’re deeply in love with the other person, whether the other person is just a transactional relationship, trying to get some business or get advantage in some way or other. Sometimes people are in relationships for very different purposes. A third way are fraudulent relationships. So sometimes people enter relationships without being honest about who they really are, what they really want, what they really believe. A fourth one is sometimes relationships are uncertain. They’re tenuous. People are only conditionally involved. Depends on this. Depends on that. That’s the opposite of a successful, fulfilling relationship. Correct? We want to know that our friendships that matter, our love ships that sustain us are meant by everybody involved to go on indefinitely throughout our lives. That’s the point of old friends or successful marriage or marital relationship kind of thing where you can count on the other person being there and staying there through thick and thin. And the fifth and final kind of relationship are dangerous relationships of problematic relationships, dangerous relationships. The classic example is spousal abuse. Sometimes, in fact usually, spousal abuse involves people who love each other. But one of them is putting up with physical or psychological abuse. But it’s hard to leave because it’s still their relationship. So sometimes relationships are literally dangerous to be in even though they’re important to the person who’s at risk. So those are ways in which my actual law cases fell out and told us five different stories about how sometimes people are surrounded by others. They’re married, they have kids, they have neighbors, they have colleagues, but they experience life as if they were all alone.
Gabe Howard: How can we lower our risk of becoming chronically lonely, because in my mind, it just seems like gather up people, make more friends on Facebook and hey, you’ve achieved it. But I imagine that that’s not the answer you’re going to give.
W. Freiberg: Well, it’s not unrelated to the answer, so there’s no magic here, we learn our relational skills early on as children, as our parents do this. And for those listening who have been parents or can remember back into their own childhood, because we’re all ex-children, all that loving and nurturing care from our parents. When you raise a child, how many hugs, how many kisses, how many skinned knees and scraped elbows do you soothe and kiss and help the child work through? We’re training our children to relate and love others. We’re teaching our children to go make their relationships in the world just the way parental birds teach the little fledgling birds how to fly, how to find worms or fish for fish, whatever they do, we literally train our children in the skills of relationships and then they go out in the world and learn to make their own friends. We’ve all watched kids move from parallel play to real play with other children to friendships. And later in teenage years, as they learn to work out relationships. We’ve all been through that. And we’ve a lot of us have watched children or nieces, nephews learn to do that. So part of what we do in working with people who have relationship issues is teach them the bag of tricks about how to be good at forming relationships, how to be an active and interactive friend. There are people who are good at these things, just like any other sphere of life.
W. Freiberg: And there are others among us who are not so good. We can impart those skills. In direct response to your question, relational due diligence, just the way you look around your house and you say, oh, there’s a rotten piece of wood, I’m going to have to replace that or call a workman with that plumbing issue. So you have to look at your own relationships. Which ones haven’t you supported lately? Have you called your cousins, for example? Because we live farther from people now, we have busier lives between the work and the commuting and the geographical mobility and the social mobility of modern life.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing loneliness with Dr. J. W. Freiberg.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that you mentioned were children and you said that we learn as children how not to be lonely, I believe your exact phrase was we moved from playing next to our peers to playing with our peers. But doesn’t the research state that more and more children are chronically lonely?
W. Freiberg: Indeed, that’s the case, everybody’s much more chronically lonely and the loneliest among us is Generation Z and the Millennials. So that’s people from 18 to 38. They actually score the loneliest on the UCLA loneliness scale.
Gabe Howard: But how can we help children who are chronically lonely, because I don’t think that anybody likes the idea of kids just wandering around feeling so alone for reasons that we could probably discuss for hours, we’re OK with adults being lonely. But this idea that a five-year-old or a 10-year-old or even a 15-year-old would feel so disconnected and so alone, it kind of sticks with us in a way. How can we as adults help?
W. Freiberg: Each of us who’s involved with raising a child has issues to think through to help that child. Just depends on the child. Right. And if a child is unable to relate successfully to make friends successfully to get on in the schoolyard, it’s very important for the parent to take note of that and to listen to hints he or she may get from, say, the teacher or guidance counselor at school and to openly discuss, work with that child about friendship making skills where that child falls down in the process. And by the way, one of the negative consequences of trying to stay safe from COVID-19 is that many children are not able to have free play to the extent they always did. And it’s in the free play at recess on the play field during the weekends, during the summer, when adults aren’t telling kids how to interrelate, the kids are just learning to deal with one another. That’s when children work out these skills. Skills like how to approach someone about beginning a friendship, how to become part of a group, how to recognize and deal with the local bully. Those are all things that children learn by dealing with one another. And if somebody’s child is having a problem with those things, the trick is to pay attention to it, maybe even to seek some professional help about how to be a helpful parent in those circumstances.
Gabe Howard: Do you think that COVID and the global pandemic is increasing loneliness? Has it changed any of your thoughts or feelings about loneliness? How has COVID played into your overall thoughts about loneliness?
W. Freiberg: Needless to say, COVID is a very powerful stressor on the issue of connectivity or loneliness, no question about it, and it strikes different groups in different ways. Let’s take the age groups in terms of little children. I’ve sort of spoken about that they’re not able to have their free play time as much. It’s basically harder for children to play with one another and practice their inter-relationship and friendship making skills. Working people in that age group are farther from one another. Many are now working remotely or in an office with a reduced staff. So they don’t see people as much as they used to. They see their friends less. They go to restaurants and bars and fun events less. Of course, they’re more divided from one another. And let’s take a look at grandparents. Sure, we can see our kids on Zoom. I have a couple of grandchildren. I see them on Zoom. I wave at them, they wave at me. That’s certainly better than nothing. And it’s important to make use of it. But it isn’t the same thing as holding one’s grandchild. So COVID-19 is a tough variable. It’s a real stressor. It is critically hard on chronically lonely people, but it’s also hard on the rest of us who are fortunate to be involved in successful relationships that make us feel safe.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for that, I really appreciate it. I just, I just don’t see how we can talk about most things without mentioning COVID, but I really don’t see how we can talk about loneliness without mentioning COVID.
W. Freiberg: Yeah, I mean, the isolation, which is part of the public health response to COVID-19 acts directly on people who have issues with loneliness in a serious way, what I call chronically lonely people, but also on the rest of us who are just aren’t able to spend the time with the people we like and love who are so important in our lives.
Gabe Howard: I completely agree. Can you walk us through your theory that chronic loneliness is a sensation rather than an emotion?
W. Freiberg: Sure, I’m fascinated by the fact that we humans are also animals, we’re also mammals, and we’re mammals of a certain sort. We are small pod family herd animals, like, for example, the cetaceans, that’s the seagoing mammals, the whales, the porpoises and the dolphins. Also certain types of hooved animals and certain classes of the great apes. We are that kind of mammal. We are built, we are wired to be with others. And when we’re not with others, we feel unsafe, disconnected and at risk. And it alerts us. We have an alert system for hunger. We have an alert system for a thirst. We have an alert system for fear, and we have an alert system for connection. And that’s what loneliness is. Loneliness is the name of the sensation we feel when we are inadequately connected to others. Look, humans are slow runners. We don’t see that well, we don’t hear that well, we don’t smell that well compared to a lot of other mammals. But we’re really clever when we team up with one another because we have language and hands and we are able to coordinate, cooperate to be very viable. That has to do with connecting successfully with one another. And so we have a warning system that tells us when we’re unsafe by disconnection. And that’s the feeling of loneliness that wells up in this. And let me just say one thing. If you think I’m exaggerating about how powerful that signal of loneliness is that we feel, we don’t think, we feel, the way we feel hunger or feel thirsty. You tell me, which hurts more, a broken arm or a broken heart?
Gabe Howard: It’s a different kind of pain, though, right? It sort of reminds me of those questions that me and my teenage friends like, What’s your favorite movie? Well, my favorite comedy? My favorite action movie? Like, no, just your favorite movie. It’s I am thinking about this question sincerely. And you’re right. The problem with a broken heart is there’s no treatment and you never know when it’s going to end. It just kind of lingers forever.
W. Freiberg: And let’s look at some of the consequences or the difference in consequences, if you have a broken arm, as you say, two hours later, you get a cast around it and two days later, your friends are signing your cast. Six weeks later, off it comes, you do some rehab. You’re back to who you were. People commit suicide over broken hearts. Not so much broken arms. People write poetry. People write opera about broken hearts, about failed love relationships. I’ve never seen any drama, opera or poetry about a broken arm. Have you?
Gabe Howard: This is very true, I can’t decide if that’s like a really good idea, if I’m going to be on Broadway next year with the broken arm, but you’re absolutely right. And it’s a broken heart is traumatic and it causes a trauma and Dr. Freiberg, there’s obviously so many questions surrounding loneliness, and it’s very evident to me in our discussion that it’s very misunderstood. People don’t understand it and often they blame themselves for it. I know there’s probably no way to wrap this up into a nice little bow, but if you could speak to people experiencing chronic loneliness, what would you want them to know?
W. Freiberg: I would want them to know that as painful as chronic loneliness is, whether it’s the objective sort where you’re you don’t have any friends or whether it’s a subjective sort of the people in your life aren’t fulfilling you, there are steps you can take and it doesn’t take a pile of money, doesn’t take the traveling around the globe. It takes being resourceful, looking honestly at your relationships, seeing where you could improve them and being active and clever about it. For example, learning to listen is one of the tricks we talk to people about. Some people are good listeners. They really are there while their friend is talking to them and they ask follow up questions. Other people are thinking what they’re going to say next and they don’t even really acknowledge receipt of the information they’ve been given. So learning to be a better listener, for example, as your friends tell you about how they feel about what’s going on in their lives, there’s a whole bag of tricks like that. And if you go to my website, JWFreiberg.com or TheLonelinessBooks.com, I included some tests, the UCLA loneliness scale. If you take that little test at home, they’ll take about 45 minutes max. It’s just 20 little questions in everyday language. You don’t want to be any kind of psychologist to take the test. It’s made to be available. It’ll tell you how your relationships are doing. And if you take the relational assessment chart test, which is right next to it on that website, you’ll see how each individual relationship of yours scores. Is that a healthy sound one or just it has some areas to work on. So just as you could do a better job of policing, let’s say your diet or your exercise regime, you can do a better job of relating to others by being aware of what’s going on.
Gabe Howard: I really do believe that loneliness is one of those things that everybody thinks that they understand, but that in actuality, nobody understands it at all.
W. Freiberg: I think you’re absolutely right, but it’s very possible to improve in this sphere, just as we’re supposed to watch that we eat a decent diet, that we get enough exercise, that we don’t smoke too much and so on, we need to take a look at our relationships and how we can strengthen them. And it’s very doable.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Freiberg’s latest book, Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation is out now. Dr. Freiberg, where can they find you and where can they find your book?
W. Freiberg: So it’s on Amazon, they just go under my initials J.W. Freiberg, F R E I B E R G, and it’ll lead you right there. And the website has all sorts of useful things. If you’re interested in being serious about the quality of your relationships, if you go to that little website and click around, you’ll find all sorts of useful hints and modes of approach that will help you get better with your existing relationship and go out and form some new ones as well.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Freiberg, thank you so much for being here. You’ve really illuminated a lot on loneliness.
W. Freiberg: It has been my pleasure.
Gabe Howard: Well, everyone, we’ve reached the end of the show. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations, which is available on Amazon.com. Or you can get signed copies for less money, and I’ll include The Psych Central Podcast swag. Just head over to gabehoward.com. If you like the show, and I certainly hope that you did, please rate, rank and review. Subscribe wherever you downloaded it and tell all your friends. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling any time anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everybody next week.
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