The topic of loneliness has never felt more relevant. We’ve all had to spend a whole lot more time this year by ourselves, and while a few extra Friday nights spent binging Netflix or podcasts didn’t seem that bad to start, seven months into this pandemic it’s safe to say we’re all feeling the psychological strain of prolonged isolation to at least some extent.
Interestingly, a new study from the University of California, San Diego has uncovered a surprising trait that appears to protect against and stave off distressing feelings of loneliness: wisdom.
That’s right, among a group of Italian and American middle-aged to older adults the research team observed an inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom. Basically, that means the wiser an adult is, the less lonely they feel, and vice versa.
Individuals living in San Diego and Cilento, Italy were examined for this research project, which was conducted in collaboration with the University of Rome La Sapienza.
“An important finding from our study was a significant inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom. People with higher scores on a measure of wisdom were less lonely and vice versa,” says lead study investigator Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a release.
Feeling lonely can lead to more than just the occasional glum evening or afternoon spent listening to Death Cab For Cutie or The Cure. Loneliness and prolonged isolation have long been linked to unhealthy aging patterns, a much higher risk of full blown depression, any number of other mental health conditions, and insomnia.
“Loneliness was consistently associated with poor general health, worse quality of sleep and less happiness, whereas the reverse was generally true for wisdom,” Dr. Jeste adds.
Does this mean Socrates and Plato never had a lonely day? Probably not, but wisdom does seem to leave one better prepared to deal with and process lonely feelings in a healthier way.
While we tend to associate wisdom with lofty historical figures like Gandhi, one certainly doesn’t have to have their name printed in history textbooks to be wise. According to the study’s authors, wisdom is a complex trait that can be broken down into a few different areas including: empathy, self-reflection, emotional control, and compassion.
Specifically, high levels of compassion and empathy appear to be particularly associated with fewer feelings of loneliness. This makes sense on a practical level, who wouldn’t want to be friends with or spend time around a compassionate, empathetic individual?
So, wise people are just generally nice to be around, which also makes isolation and loneliness less likely.
“If we can increase someone’s compassion, wisdom is likely to go up and loneliness is likely to go down,” comments David Brenner, MD, vice-chancellor of UC San Diego Health Sciences. “At UC San Diego, we have considerable interest in enhancing empathy and compassion to reduce levels of stress and improve happiness and well-being.”
But, how exactly can one raise their level of compassion? Dr. Brenner believes CBT therapy can help, as well as something as simple as writing in a gratitude journal daily.
To come to these findings, researchers used the UCLA Loneliness Scale and San Diego Wisdom Scale to assess adults aged between 50 and 65 years old, as well as individuals over the age of 90 from both California and Italy. It’s worth mentioning that the Cilento area of Italy is a relatively remote, rural area, meaning locals may be more prone to loneliness than others living in more urban regions.
“We translated the rating scales for loneliness and wisdom from English to Italian. It is remarkable that the findings related to these two traits were largely similar in two markedly different cultures — a rural region of southern Italy and an urban/suburban county in the United States, both with different native languages and unique historical, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds,” explains lead Italian investigator Salvatore Di Somma, MD, Ph.D., professor of emergency medicine at University of Rome La Sapienza.
Moving forward, the next step toward a better understanding of the relationship between wisdom and loneliness is to track a group of subjects’ feelings of loneliness over time as they attempt to cultivate more wisdom.
If you’ve been feeling more isolated this year, you’re (ironically) certainly not alone. It isn’t going to make all lonely thoughts disappear overnight, but these findings may be worth keeping in mind the next time you’re debating whether or not to re-watch The Office for a seventh time or dust off your old philosophy books from college.
The full study can be found here, published in Aging and Mental Health.