“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” — Carl Jung
Steve Cole, PhD., is a Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences in the UCLA School of Medicine. (And no, that’s not him in the photo.) We are due to talk over Zoom, although he has warned me that his bandwidth in California is probably worse than Tenzin Palmo’s at her nunnery in North India.
As it turns out, our only technical glitch is entirely of my making. Unusually, I had turned off the sound on my laptop with the intention of writing uninterrupted, and forgot to turn it on again for our call. So I logged onto my Zoom room, saw nobody else there so figured Steve was still getting online, so wandered over to another window to do email, expecting to hear Zoom ping when he checked in. At four minutes past the hour, I was getting concerned, so checked my messages — to find an email saying he could see me, but I didn’t seem to be able to hear him.
If there is one thing worse than being unwittingly watched, it is being unwittingly watched by a behavioural scientist.
Steve goes on to be a wonderful interviewee, with a charming way of agreeing emphatically with things I say, which makes me feel as if I’m smart. He is obviously passionate about his subject, speaking in well-formed sentences, which makes my job of writing up our conversation exponentially easier. (I’ve edited only for length in what follows.)
He is looking relaxed in a white t-shirt under a dark blue fleece, with neat salt-and-pepper facial hair that is more than stubble but less than a beard, and becoming more salt and less pepper. He has kind eyes behind light-framed glasses, and seems like the kind of guy you could probably enjoy a beer with. I picture the countless research subjects that must have been through his lab, and imagine that he would always treat them with respect and empathy.
I had come across his work in a Guardian article reporting the UK’s appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. The article briefly described his research into the impacts of chronic loneliness on our health at the epigenetic level. We are born with fixed DNA, but how that DNA is translated into our physiological reality depends on a variety of environmental factors, including our emotional state. It also mentioned his finding that adverse impacts can be alleviated by embracing a sense of purpose.
This idea immediately resonated with me, as I doubted I could have endured the solitude of my ocean voyages if I hadn’t been driven by the sense that I was on some kind of mission. I had already been working on the theory, for my book on The Gifts of Solitude, that feeling connected to a greater purpose could help alleviate hardship of all kinds, so I definitely wanted to learn more.
What does Purpose have to do with Loneliness?
RS: Your work seems to fall into two distinct chunks — one on loneliness, and one on purpose, but there also seems to be considerable overlap between the two. Is that how you would conceptualise it?
SC: Yes, absolutely. Originally, we had thought of them as two different things, but what we’re learning when we look at loneliness is that it’s very hard to tackle loneliness head-on, particularly chronic loneliness, which is the toxic version. Transient loneliness really doesn’t have enough temporal scope to damage our health that much, but people who live loneliness as a lifestyle, as a worldview, as a way of being for years and years and years, that’s when the health toll really gets high. So it turns out a lot of that kind of chronic loneliness comes from a perception that you just can’t trust other human beings, and as you might imagine, it’s very difficult to therapeutically talk people out of not trusting other human beings — by saying, “Hey! Don’t be lonely, you loser!”
RS: It’s a bit like saying, “Be happy!”
SC: Yes, absolutely. Completely unproductive. So a lot of us have been thinking about whether there another kind of more oblique attack on loneliness. And the one oblique attack that really seems to work is to take the attention of a lonely person off themself and their own suffering, and get their attention onto something else and somebody else. Often those external causes are goals that you can’t necessarily achieve alone. So, many times, the most effective attack on loneliness is getting people together around some kind of shared ideal or aspiration, in which case they can learn that there are some other people who see the world the way they do, that value what they value, and that they can trust to partner in some sort of meta-organismic activity, coming together as a community and trying to get stuff done. Getting people together around shared purpose and value turns out to be a great way of tackling loneliness.
RS: That makes perfect sense, because throughout most of human history, that is what people did — come together to do things together that would benefit everybody. So people shouldn’t be worried that a short term lockdown is going to do them damage at the epigenetic level?
Ahhh, you know what I’m going to say now, don’t you?!
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Gifts of Solitude. I would be most grateful if you would go to the full article on Medium.com, which will earn me a few cents in these financially challenging times. If you follow this “friend link“, you don’t have to pay to read it. I believe the algorithm gauges the number of people who read it, and for how many minutes, so please read slowly!
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And thank you.