6 Minute English

Intermediate level

Is loneliness in our genes?

Episode 161013 / 13 Oct 2016

What is loneliness and why do we feel it? Sophie and Neil discuss how feeling lonely can help us to survive.

This week's question

Which country has the highest proportion of people living on their own? Is it …

a) the US?

b) Japan?

c) Sweden?

You'll hear the answer at the end of the programme.

Vocabulary

down in the dumps
unhappy

loneliness
an unpleasant feeling that tells us that we're lacking contact with others, which motivates us to seek out companionship

isolated
lacking contact with others

cooperation
working together to get something done

tolerate
put up with

intriguing
very interesting

back up
support

contagious
get something (e.g. a cold, or a lonely feeling) from someone else who has it

single occupancy
a room or apartment for one person

Transcript

Note: This is not a word-for-word transcript

Sophie
Hello and welcome to 6 Minute English. I'm Sophie…

Neil
And I'm Neil.

Sophie
How was your weekend, Neil?

Neil
Well, not great – I hadn't got anything planned, so I didn't see anyone for two days. And to be honest, I felt very lonely! There was a real physical feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Sophie
Poor Neil! You do sound really down in the dumps, and that means unhappy! Well, the subject of today's show is loneliness. And loneliness is sometimes described as a social pain – a pain that tells us that we're isolated – or lacking contact with others – which motivates us to seek out companionship.

Neil
I'd no idea that feeling lonely had a biological explanation! How does being sociable help us, as a species, then, Sophie?

Sophie
It's all about cooperation – or working together to get something done – for example, finding food.

Neil
Well, I suppose I cooperated with the pizza delivery guy for a shared outcome.

Sophie
You paid him and he gave you the pizza?

Neil
Exactly. But it wasn't a socially enriching experience. That's the bad thing about London – you can feel lonely, even surrounded with people. It isn't easy to meet people you really like – so often you might as well just on your own.

Sophie
Good point. And I have a question about cities and living alone, Neil, because it's on the rise. Which country has the highest proportion of people living on their own? Is it …
a) the US?
b) Japan?
Or c) Sweden?

Neil
Well, I'm going to guess b) Japan.

Sophie
OK, we'll see if you got that right later on in the show. So, getting back to loneliness – the idea is that because it makes us feel bad, it motivates us to go out and meet people. Some people are more likely to feel lonely than others because our genes play a role in this tendency.

Neil
I wonder if I inherited loneliness genes.

Sophie
I don't know, Neil, but while in some situations being lonely may be a good thing, because it encourages you to be sociable, in other situations it may be useful to tolerate – or put up with – loneliness. Let's listen to Professor Dorret Boomsma at the Vrije University in Amsterdam talking about this.

INSERT
Professor Dorret Boomsma, Department of Biological Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
So the intriguing question is why do genes that influence loneliness still exist? And one explanation is that probably they do not only have negative effects. In some situations it is an advantage to be able to tolerate high levels of loneliness and that is why the genes are maintained in the population.

Sophie
So, inheriting genes for loneliness might not be a bad thing. Why's that, Neil?

Neil
Because it means you can tolerate being alone for a long time without feeling bad.

Sophie
Well, that's an intriguing – or very interesting – idea. But it shows that you probably don't have those genes, Neil, because you did feel bad at the weekend.

Neil
That's true. And actually, that was despite spending a long time on Facebook, and that's a form of social contact. But does all the tweeting, messaging, and chatting online that we do make us lonelier, because we're getting out less and meeting fewer people? Or do virtual connections stop us from feeling lonely?

Sophie
Those are also intriguing questions. Let's listen to Professor Eric Klinenberg sociologist at New York University and author of a book about living alone. He talks about this.

INSERT
Eric Klinenberg, sociologist at New York University and author
We just don't have great research showing that we are significantly more lonely or isolated today than we were ten or twenty or thirty years ago, which means critics who say that Facebook or the internet or whatever device you carry with you, is making you lonelier and more miserable - they just don't have that much evidence to back it up.

Neil
So there isn't enough evidence to back up – or support – the claim that social media is making us feel lonelier.

Sophie
No, there isn't. OK, now before I give you the answer to today's quiz question, Neil, did you know that loneliness is contagious?

Neil
You mean you can catch it from somebody like a cold?

Sophie
Yes. There are environmental factors involved in loneliness too. For example, if somebody you talk to every day is always unfriendly towards you, this makes you statistically more likely to be negative in your interactions with somebody else.

Neil
Well, let's try and stay friendly towards each other, then, Sophie. You can start by telling me whether I got today's quiz question right!

Sophie
OK. I asked: which country has the highest proportion of people living on their own? Is it … a) the US, b) Japan or c) Sweden?

Neil
And I said Japan.

Sophie
This is the wrong answer, I'm afraid. It's actually c) Sweden. Nearly half of all Swedish households are single-occupancy – or for one person. Living alone in Sweden is arguably the norm because it's so easy – there are many affordable single-occupancy apartments and young Swedes can expect to move into their own apartment once they graduate high-school.

Neil
OK, now let's hear the words we learned today again, Sophie.

Sophie
Yes, OK. They are:
down in the dumps
loneliness
isolated
cooperation
tolerate
intriguing
back up
contagious
single occupancy

Neil
Well, that's the end of this edition of 6 Minute English. Join us again soon! Meanwhile, visit our website: bbclearningenglish.com, where you'll find guides to grammar, exercises, videos and articles to read and improve your English.

Both
Bye!