I wrote this article to look at why loneliness is an issue that is getting such attention at the moment and what can we do to tackle it? It was subsequently published in the Irish well-being website A Lust for Life.
You may have heard that last year a Loneliness Taskforce was set up by Senator Keith Swanick in collaboration with Seán Moynihan of ALONE to coordinate Ireland’s response to loneliness and social isolation. In the UK the first ever Minister for Loneliness was appointed in January this year.
Some Facts about Loneliness:
Loneliness is bad for our health and contributes to a shorter lifespan. Persistent loneliness has been shown to increase blood pressure, cholesterol and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. Importantly, research has shown that loneliness and social isolation may be worse for us than well-known lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
Loneliness has been linked to depression. Loneliness and depression are interlinked. If we are feeling worthless and low we tend to withdraw from people. When we don’t feel like we belong or have strong connections with others we begin to feel lonely and unhappy.
Loneliness is different to being alone. Alone time and solitude can be very good for us, providing us with space to reflect, to restore and to be creative. This can be peaceful, pleasant and fulfilling. Loneliness on the other hand feels heavy, dull, and there is a sense of being isolated from others. It is draining and upsetting.
Loneliness has been defined as the gap between how connected we are to people versus how connected we actually want to be. The bigger the gap, the lonelier we feel. At times we have all experienced loneliness. It is a part of human nature and it actually motivates us to seek out human connection, something that has helped us as species to survive. However, when loneliness becomes long-lasting or feels all-consuming it can be harmful to our health and wellbeing.
Loneliness doesn’t depend on the number of relationships or friendships you have. It is the quality that matters. If we have lots of friends but feel that we are not emotionally connected to them it can lead to feelings of loneliness. Others may have just one or two friends and feel deeply connected to them, and therefore don’t feel lonely at all. We see this regularly with social media where people have 100s of Facebook ‘friends’ but still feel isolated and lonely. Remember, it is quality rather than quantity that counts.
If you are married or in a relationship you can still experience loneliness. Feeling disconnected from our partners when we are in a relationship can be a very lonely experience partly because society expects us to be happy once we have coupled up. However, if it doesn’t feel that our partner understands us or is not connected with us then this can leave us feeling very alone. Or perhaps they travel or work a lot and we feel distant from them as a result.
So if I feel lonely, what can I do about it?
Work out why it is that you are lonely. Loneliness as it is a subjective experience – what one person experiences as lonely another may not. First of all, work out why you feel lonely. Try and get specific about what exactly is it that makes you feel isolated. Writing it down or talking it over with someone can help clarify this for you.
Some researchers suggest that there are different types of loneliness. Here are just a few examples of these which may help you figure out why you are feeling lonely:
New -Situation Loneliness – Perhaps you have started a new job or moved cities and are now feeling lonely as a result.
I’m-Different Loneliness – Maybe you no longer have the same interests as your friends or you feel people don’t ‘get’ you. Perhaps you are at a different life stage to other people – you are the first of your friends to have a baby, or to retire etc.
No-Partner Loneliness – Maybe you are after a break up, are widowed, or just haven’t met a person to whom you feel connected to. Not being in a relationship in a society set up for marriage and families can leave you feeling isolated. Dating can also be a lonely business as you search for a meaningful connection in the sometimes fickle world of dating.
No-Friends Loneliness – You may have lots of acquaintances and colleagues who are friendly without being friends. Or maybe the friends you do have no longer have as much time for you as they once did as life circumstances change. Perhaps you have friends that are great fun but you couldn’t quite trust them enough to confide in them.
Once you identify why you feel lonely you can take steps to address it. Here are some ideas for overcoming loneliness in your life:
Let People In. Ironically, when we are lonely we can tend to cut ourselves off from other people; we can be more judgemental and critical of ourselves and others. We may not even be open to people who actually want to befriend us! However, being aware of this means we can take steps to override it and stay open.
Make the effort. If you wait to feel better before you reach out and ask someone to go for a cup of tea it might never happen. However if we go for the cup of tea, despite not feeling too enthusiastic about it, it is very likely that we will come away afterwards feeling glad that we did. Connection generates feelings of happiness. Seek out the company of others, put yourself out there! It will be worth the initial discomfort.
Join a club or society. This may seem clichéd but it can be much easier to make friendships when you have a common activity or purpose. It might be daunting to start a new sport or hobby but over time it will hopefully become something you look forward to and that will help you connect with your club mates.
Nurture Others. Doing something that involves caring for another person, for example volunteering or babysitting, actually helps us to feel connected to others and we feel good for helping out too.
Get a Pet! Some research suggests that owning a pet can help ease feelings of loneliness. They provide companionship, encourage us to get active in caring for them and often lead to conversations with other pet owners.
Nourishment and Gratitude. Look at the relationships you do have. Do these need some TLC? How can you and your friend or partner nourish the connection that drew you together in the first place? Having gratitude and appreciation for the relationships we do have can also help to lessen our feelings of loneliness.
Consider Counselling. If you find that you continually struggle to make connections with others or that the feeling of loneliness rarely seems to ease then talking with a Humanistic Counsellor may help. Perhaps you have had early experiences of feeling disconnected from key figures in your life or you have never quite learnt how to express yourself in relationships. As a counsellor that focuses on relationships I can help you understand and move past the issues that may be preventing you from connecting with others.
Finally, remember that you are actually not alone in your loneliness. Loneliness is part of being human, a natural and universal experience. But ongoing loneliness is detrimental to your health and happiness so it is important that you prioritise addressing it in your life. It is likely that there are lots of other lonely people out there who would love to connect with you. Have some fun exploring ways that you can increase feelings of belonging and connection in your life.