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People are less lonely when they embrace uncertainty and feel empathy, a study found

old ladies hanging out in a garden

Summary List Placement

Before COVID-19 was on the global radar, there was already a loneliness pandemic taking a toll on physical, mental, and cognitive health worldwide.

Feelings of social isolation have only intensified since the coronavirus caused countries to go into lockdown. But as the world awaits a coronavirus vaccine, an international team led by geriatric neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste may have found a cure for loneliness: wisdom.

People who scored higher on a questionnaire designed to measure wisdom — which, unlike intelligence, has to do with emotional regulation and accepting uncertainty, Jeste told Insider — scored lower on a loneliness scale, according to a study published today in Aging and Mental Health.

Jeste and colleagues at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine's Center for Healthy Aging have investigated the role of wisdom as a protective factor against loneliness before. This study, a collaboration with researchers at University of Rome La Sapienza, put their previous findings in a cross-cultural context.

Across two different cultures and age groups, the team found a strong inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom, suggesting that interventions designed to enhance components of wisdom could be an avenue towards greater wellbeing.

The San Diego Wisdom Scale puts a scientific lens on what it means to be wise

While wisdom may sound like an abstract concept, Jeste and his colleagues at the Center for Healthy Aging at UC San Diego have gotten it down to a science. Over the past 15 years, they've studied brain pathways that may be implicated in wisdom and developed a scientifically valid questionnaire to measure six subcomponents that make a person wise.

The team used this San Diego Wisdom Scale — which measures empathy and compassion, emotional regulation, self-reflection, accepting uncertainty and diversity, decisiveness, and advice-giving — and the widely accepted UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3) to survey their respondents.

"This is not some philosophical, religious idea — not at all," Jeste told Insider. "It is based on empirical data collected using validated instruments."

You won't find the words "wisdom" or "loneliness" in either of the questionnaires, Jeste said. Instead, the surveys consist of items like, "I don't feel connected to other people," prompting the participant to score how much they agree or disagree with the statement.

Across cultures and age groups, high wisdom was associated with decreased loneliness

The study assessed four different groups of people: adults aged 50 to 65 and those older than age 90 from urban-suburban San Diego and from Cilento, a rural region in southern Italy. 

Although the "oldest-old" groups were smaller than the middle-aged cohorts, they represent an important, understudied segment of the population, Jeste told Insider.

"These people aged over 90, that's the fastest growing segment of the population, and that's the group that costs more in terms of health care." Jeste said. "And yet, they're the least studied group."

Social isolation especially impacts the health of older populations who are at risk of developing chronic diseases. Research has shown loneliness is associated with increased inflammation in the brain and plaque in the arteries, leading to a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease and heart disease, among other conditions.

The Cilento "oldest-old" group had significantly lower wisdom scores than any other group, Jeste noted. He hypothesized that the disparity could have to do with the group's fraught history or lower test-taking abilities, although the analysis controlled for differences in education.

Still, all four groups had significant inverse correlations between their wisdom and loneliness scores, proving an association independent of age and culture.

Building empathy and compassion could solve the loneliness problem

Of all six subcomponents of wisdom, empathy and compassion (a single tenet) were most strongly associated with low loneliness. Jeste said this may be because empathy can help increase social connectedness, which is the opposite of loneliness.

The good news is that you can significantly increase your capacity for empathy and compassion. In a meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry in May, half of the studies analyzed concluded that it's possible to increase these elements of wisdom with simple interventions.

Principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as self-guided gratitude journals and random acts of kindness can help increase empathy and compassion and therefore protect against loneliness, Jeste said.

"If people can be more empathetic and compassionate, if they can have more control over their emotions, if they can be more accepting of diversity and uncertainty, if they can be more self reflective, I think we will all become less lonely, less stressed out, and happier," Jeste said.

Read more:

7 physical symptoms that can be caused by loneliness

12 ways to cope with coronavirus anxiety, according to psychologists

Loneliness is a big risk for older people stuck at home. Here's how to connect with seniors when you can't be together in person.

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