Loneliness is often seen as an issue effecting the elderly. Whilst the can be the case, a recent survey showed highest rates of loneliness in young adults. 40% of 16 to 24 year olds reported feeling lonely often, or very often, compared to 27% of over 75s 1.
An important distinction is that feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. Those who live alone in this survey were only slightly more likely to experience loneliness than those who lived with others. Only a third of those in the study felt loneliness was about physically being on your own 1.
We have evolved to be social creatures. However, in our modern society individuals we are living ever more in our own social islands.
One view is that the digital existence we live in helps drive loneliness. Face to face human connection can’t be substituted by online communication, however many Facebook ‘friends’ we have – our brains process them in different ways. Prioritising online connections over real human contact is detrimental to our social wellbeing. Today with social media you can feel you know what your friends are up to as you ‘follow’ them, without ever actually seeing them in person. This lack of human connection can exacerbate feelings of loneliness. This said, social media can have a role in connecting you to people with shared interests and passions that you might not have met without these platforms. Social media has its place and can be such an amazing resource, but it has to be used in a way that is overall beneficial for the user who engages with it. It can also be a good idea to turn off social media notifications, so it doesn’t intrude when you’re having ‘real life’ human interactions.
Loneliness is not only bad for your mental health, but physical health too. Loneliness is as detrimental to your health as a habit of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! 2. It also increases your risk of heart attack or stroke by 30 per cent 3.
Whilst some are calling for the government to intervene and develop policies and strategies to combat this epidemic of loneliness 2, there are also somethings you can do as an individual in an attempt to combat feelings of loneliness. Here are a few of my suggestions:
- Get a date in the diary to see your friends – if you don’t live close by to your friends (and even if you do!) it can go a while before you see them if you aren’t organised. Reach out and arrange a time to see each-other face to face. Even if it’s months in advance, it’ll be something to look forward to.
- Park run – it’s not really about the running! It’s about getting out in the fresh air and being sociable. Become a regular and you will meet people again and again and strike up a conversation. You don’t have to run, you can jog, walk or do a bit of both. If this still doesn’t feel like your cup of tea, how about volunteering? You’ll feel good about yourself either one you choose.
- Join a regular activity-based class, such as yoga, walking club, spin class, cricket, tennis – whatever you enjoy. If you go at the same time each week you will become part of that community.
- Join a book or chess club.
- Join an art or pottery class.
- Volunteer – at a charity shop, Brownies/Scouts etc.
- Go to a café instead of staying inside all day. If you work from home or spend all your free time isolated it can be easy to start to feel lonely. If you become a regular at a café either to be productive and work or relax and people watch or read a book, you can strike up conversation with the baristas and become a welcome regular. It’s amazing how much a welcome smile can make a difference.
These are just some ideas. The main message is whatever you enjoy there will be something out there for you. I urge anyone who is lonely to make a conscious effort starting now to try and seek out a social connection.
- BBC Radio 4 – The Anatomy of Loneliness – Who feels lonely? The results of the world’s largest loneliness study. (2018). Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2yzhfv4DvqVp5nZyxBD8G23/who-feels-lonely-the-results-of-the-world-s-largest-loneliness-study. (Accessed: 7th February 2019)
- Francesca Donovan. The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People Needs To Be Tackled By Government. (2018). Available at: https://www.unilad.co.uk/featured/loneliness-epidemic-young-people-tackled-government/. (Accessed: 7th February 2019)
- Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S. & Hanratty, B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart 102, 1009–1016 (2016).