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That's psychologist John T. Cacioppo's dilemma, one that he handles surprisingly well. The key is to avoid banalities and delve into research. And that's what he and his coauthor, William Patrick (the professional writer of the duo) manage to do.
Cacioppo, who's been studying loneliness and human (and animal) connection for 30 years, has a simple definition for loneliness: "social pain." But he insists that depression is different: "depression makes you apathetic," but loneliness makes you want to affiliate. Loneliness is a signal, a warning sign: it "triggers feelings of threat and dread." He even has a shorthand formula
Now before you start jumping up and shouting that things aren't that simple, Cacioppo acknowledges that depression and loneliness can converge, producing a "diminished sense of personal control, which leads to passive coping." Citing Martin Seligman's research on "learned helplessness," he argues that "this induced passivity prevents lonely people from effectively acting." But he isn't particularly interested in the internal dynamic states of depression or loneliness: as a social psychologist, he's primed to see people acting—or not acting—in the world at large. Though lonely people may eventually become depressed, he believes they typically start off simply and desperately wanting to join in with their fellow creatures.
Unfortunately, research shows that lonely people are more socially inept than others. Studies in which subjects are divided and made to feel socially disconnected demonstrate these results: isolated people score lower on cognitive tests than those who have sturdy networks of connections. The immune systems of lonely people are less robust. Lonely people get sicker. They eat less well and consume fattier foods. Pass the donuts, please! It's no joke.