Q: 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
A: 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.
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’s 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.
Q: I’m a 32-year-old guy with a really great female friend. We talk on the phone, grab food, etc. She even kept me company in the hospital after I got into a motorcycle accident. I’ve started falling for her, and I want to ask her out, but I’m afraid of losing her friendship.—Conflicted
A: It’s just a bit of a twist on the friendship ring. You’d like to give her a friendship penis. Risk researchers find that decision-making in the face of uncertainty, when we can’t be sure of what the outcome will be, is really hard for us. However, by plugging in all the information we have, positive and negative, we can make an educated prediction about how things are likely to turn out—and whether we can afford the loss if our effort is a bust.
For example, if you have only one friend and if you’re pretty sure you could never make another—say, because you live on one of those tiny desert islands in a New Yorker cartoon—you might decide it’d be too costly for you to risk saying something. And if, on a scale from 1 to 10, your friend is a 9.2 and you’re more on the bridge troll end of the spectrum (in both looks and career prospects), your chances of romance with her might be pretty slim. (Shrek is not a documentary.)
If, after weighing the pros and cons, you decide to ask this woman out, you could simply say, “I’d like to take you on a date. Would you be interested in that?” Yes, it’s possible that doing this would tank your friendship, but chances are, you’d just act a little weird around her for a while. Then again, if you said nothing and constantly agonized over wanting her, you might also end up acting all weird—in ways that would make continuing your friendship impossible. (OK, so she’s not into you, but maybe if you send her yet another love poem written in your own blood . . .)