New study of twins shows that loneliness is genetic but not necessarily hard-wired

A new Western University study of more than 750 pairs of adult twins shows that loneliness, for some, is more than just a feeling. It’s actually part of a person’s genetic makeup. However, there is encouraging news – environment still plays a much larger role in our feelings of connectedness than our own DNA.

“If you have rich interactions with people, that’s an environmental component that would combat the genetic impact of loneliness,” says Julie Aitken Schermer, a professor in Western’s DAN Department of Management and Organizational Studies who specializes in personality differences and behaviour genetics.

In short, people who feel lonely are not hard-wired to remain that way. Or, at the very least, they can help fill the relationship void by cultivating closeness with another living thing – a pet, for example – or deepening their circle of friendship with more face-to-face interactions.

The study found a robust genetic correlation between loneliness and the insecurity/stress that psychologists call neuroticism. Conversely, those with the personality traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness and extroversion were less likely to identify themselves as ‘lonely.’

Loneliness can also be linked with depression, says Schermer, and it’s a growing issue among young people.

“It does concern me because I think we’re getting more lonely as a society. We’re not having the same richness of interaction,” she explains. “For many young people, their friends are just clicks on buttons and fewer and fewer of them go beyond superficial, fleeting connections.”

Schermer’s study, co-authored by Nicholas G. Martin from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia and newly published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined five broad categories of personality traits and their potential correlations with biochemical, genetic and environmental factors.

Study participants came from among a registry of 764 pairs of adult twins from Australia – twins are often considered valuable research subjects and in this instance helped researchers gauge genetic and environmental influences – who were asked a series of questions about their feelings of loneliness, isolation and lack of companionship and surveyed on different personality factors.

Schermer has conducted other studies about loneliness, including a previous study that found people who engage in self-deprecating humour are more likely to be lonely.

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