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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018 12:13 am

For whom the sleigh bells toll

PHOTO COURTESY AMY ALKON
Amy Alkon
I get very lonely around the holidays. My family is just my parents, and they’re far away. I don’t have a boyfriend right now. I have many friends and good people in my life but instead of hanging out with them, I find myself isolating. So ... it seems my treatment for loneliness is loneliness and then feeling sorry for myself that I’m home alone. Help!
-- Pity Party Animal
 
Each of us gets into the holiday spirit in our own special way. Some of us build gingerbread houses; some of us build gingerbread psychiatric hospitals.

    To understand how you can long for human connection and (ugh!) long to avoid it at the very same time, it helps to understand the mechanics of loneliness -- the pain we feel when we’re disconnected from others. Like other emotions, loneliness is “adaptive,” meaning it has a function. It most likely evolved to motivate ancestral humans to behave in ways that would help them survive and mate. (Survival in the harsh ancestral environment would have been strongly connected with social bonds, and mating without a partner tends to be a bust for those of us who are not aphids or slime mold.)

    The problem is, our psychology is complex, and work orders laid out for us by different emotional adaptations -- different functional feelings -- sometimes conflict. For example, the sadness that comes with loneliness is also motivating -- only it can motivate you to lie facedown on the couch.

    This probably seems anything but useful, but psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse explains that the slowing down in energy that’s a partner to sadness gives us time to examine our behavior, figure out whether we might do better with different tactics, and, if so, change our MO.

    It is important to take stock like this -- to a point. But if you remind yourself of the evolved job of emotions, you’ll see that it’s sometimes in your interest to override them. In short, you can do your sadness homework without making your loneliness worse by spending your entire holiday mumbling into the throw pillows.
    
Tell your besties that you could use some cheering up, and give yourself an emotional work assignment: going to a minimum of three parties over the holidays where groups of your friends will be in attendance. Keep in mind -- while you’re lifting what feels like your 3,000-pound arm to apply mascara before going to some shindig -- that we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy or unhappy. Chances are, once you’re at the party, you’ll catch a buzz from the eggnog, get laughing with your friends, and accidentally slack off on your fashionable nihilism -- your muttering that it’s all nothingness and you’re alone in the universe except for your unpaid debts.

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