Nearly half of the UK population report experiencing loneliness some of the time, while 25% of adults state they have no close friends. This is evident in all age groups in society, applying equally to under 50s and over 50s.
Worryingly, half a million older people report going five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone, and sadly 3.9 million consider the television as their main source of companionship. The scale of the problem is so great that the UK now has a Minister for Loneliness.
The pandemic has exacerbated the situation further, with limits on face-to-face interaction and restrictions on how we can meet up with friends and family.
However, there are many ways to combat loneliness, and it starts with how we think about it.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness, as we currently view it, is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 17th and 18th century, it was considered a consequence of either being away from others, straying from religious teachings, a fear of the external wilderness or being cast out from society.
Modern loneliness isn't just about being physically apart from others, it's an emotional state of feeling unconnected, where the feared wilderness is within us. This makes sense given we're profoundly shaped by our social environment and the nature of the bonds that we experience.
What does loneliness feel like?
Can you remember the last time you were hungry and what it felt like? You’ll probably be able to describe the feeling in detail. Do you remember the last time you felt really lonely and what that felt like? Many people struggle with this – we avoid unpleasant emotions and quickly try to distract ourselves from them. Added to this is a shame associated with loneliness that means the lonely stay silent, and lonely.
Any of us can experience loneliness at any point, and for each of us the experience is different. For example, my experience of loneliness is a dull ache and 'hum' in the chest, accompanied by a rawness that feels as if I'm exposed to the cold, wind and rain, with the occasional thought that nothing will ever change.
When we experience social pain, the feeling is as real as physical pain. Despite this, we don't talk about loneliness, because telling someone can feel like admitting weakness or failure. In the same way hunger is a signal to attend to our food needs, loneliness is a signal for us to attend to our social needs. Seeing loneliness in this way encourages a conversation without fear of judgement.
What are the effects of loneliness?
Despite changing general attitudes towards mental health, loneliness can be a difficult subject to discuss for fear of discrimination. This can create a sense of isolation or severe loneliness, which can lead to mental ill health, making loneliness worse. This fear of judgement fuels the vicious cycle, where the majority of those feeling lonely are unable to tell anyone.
Chronic loneliness can impact our physical health as well as our mental health, causing as much harm as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It's associated with twice the risk of early death compared to obesity, and is linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
Technology can be a double-edged sword
When lonely, many people turn to social media as a destination (a place where you interact with others) rather than a way station, (a means for setting up face-to-face meetings with others).
While this can masquerade as connection, it often leads to unrewarding and unauthentic interactions. And there’s a danger of constantly comparing your 'imperfect insides' with the 'perfect outsides’ of others, which can lead to a non-genuine disconnect, resulting in even more loneliness.
Also, with many of us working from home due to the pandemic, technology is replacing human interaction more and more. Although there are benefits to remote working, such as increased flexibility, it can sometimes create a feeling of isolation.
However, I’m sure many of you would agree that video calling has been the next best thing to catching up with loved ones, when we haven’t been physically able meet up with each other.
How we can work together to combat loneliness
It begins with a different approach to our language and perception of loneliness. Rather than seeing it as weakness, remember that feeling lonely is a normal part of being human and is a signal we need to change something about our social world.
Talking about it can help to bring about change. Have a look at 10 ways to take action against loneliness for a helpful guide to supporting yourself and others.
In terms of workplace loneliness, our whitepaper on remote working makes several recommendations for employers, for example that managers should foster social and professional interaction, providing a sense of belonging to a bigger group.
Speak out and reach out
You don't have to be alone to be lonely and being alone doesn't always lead to loneliness. Make some time to talk and be ready to listen and reach out to anyone you think may benefit from support.
Last updated Wednesday 24 February 2021