Is Loneliness One of the Greatest Killers of Our Time?
It's all around us, yet there's a shame associated with loneliness which buries it
Ricky Martin was right when he sang Nobody Wants To Be Lonely. And yet here we are, a society that is becoming increasingly lonely.
Loneliness isn’t restricted to being alone. Even surrounded by people, we can feel alone. I have certainly been in this position before. And truthfully, the last few years have brought many pangs of loneliness into my life. I suspect many of you feel similarly.
COVID-19 has showered many people with sensations of loneliness.
The Campaign to End loneliness defines loneliness as:
Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981)
Please note the use of the word “subjective” here. We are all different, and we each experience loneliness in different ways.
The health implications of loneliness
Loneliness harms our physical and mental health, so much so that it is considered a public health issue.
Here are some staggering facts about the physical effect of loneliness:
It increases our mortality risk by a whopping 24%
It correlates with smoking and obesity.
It increases our susceptibility to heart disease and stroke.
It’s associated with high blood pressure.
It’s a risk factor for increasing fragility in our elder years.
And now for some facts about the mental effect of loneliness:
Increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
It correlates with depression.
It is a predictor of suicide in older age.
Happiness is a funny one. I don’t believe anyone else is responsible for my happiness. And yet, I consider myself as part of a collective, responsible for other people’s happiness.
Ultimately I believe it’s about give and take.
Different types of loneliness
Anyone can be lonely. And here’s the thing, there is no shame in admitting you feel lonely.
I used to be reluctant to be open about feeling lonely as I thought others would somehow see me as desperate or faulty.
We tend to think of loneliness as occurring in old age, but it isn’t limited to this demographic. According to a poll by the Prince’s Trust, over a quarter of young people aged between 16 - 25 say they have never felt so alone as they do after the pandemic.
There are plenty of times in my life that I have felt lonely. Here are a just a few examples:
Starting boarding school.
Seeing social media pics of a friend group on a night out that I didn’t receive an invite to.
When an old friend group evolved into a mothers and babies group, leaving me - a childfree person - spare and surplus.
Moving to a new country and struggling to make friends or integrate into the community.
We all have different social needs to fill up our bucket of connection. When these needs are not met, we experience loneliness.
We can differentiate loneliness into three different types.
This type of loneliness is when we don’t have a significant other or others. It may be the absence of a partner if this is what our heart yearns for. Or the lack of any meaningful relationship with friends or family. Even pets and plants stave off emotional loneliness!
I have an incredible partner, and yet because I place a huge emphasis on friendships, I experience loneliness at my lack of in-person kindred spirits in my day-to-day life. (Fortunately, this is a phase).
We experience social loneliness if we don’t have a network of people. This network includes colleagues, peers in social groups, neighbours, or outer circle friends.
Perhaps this was the most impactful element of loneliness during the pandemic.
Existential loneliness occurs when we experience significant life changes that shake our world. It refers to an inner sense of separateness between ourselves and others.
Loneliness becomes a regular feeling when we embark on a healing journey and follow a road of personal growth. Even positive change can drag us through uncomfortable feelings.
Sometimes we experience one type of loneliness, and it’s relatively easy to recognise what is missing in our lives. Other times we may get the hat trick of all three, which can be a little more challenging.
The difference between solitude and loneliness
Not everyone alone is lonely. And only some people who have company are happy.
There is a vast difference between solitude and loneliness.
Solitude brings a vibe of choice, comfort, contentment, and inner peace. Finding solitude has spiritual connotations and alludes to a level of personal satisfaction that many aspire for.
A few years ago, I moved to a new country. I left behind a tropical garden of illuminating friendship flowers. I moved away from a home where I had a profound sense of place, purpose, and belonging.
I make friends easily, yet with this move, I have struggled to make more than 2.5 friends or integrate into the community. I can attribute part of this to the pandemic, but other factors are also at play.
This past year I have learned to transform my deep-seated loneliness into a more empowering feeling of solitude.
By this, I mean I’ve learned to be my own best friend. That’s not to say that I don’t still suffer from days of raw loneliness, but on the whole, I have worked hard to use this time for introspection, personal growth, and my own evolution.
Luckily I can pop back over the water every so often to nourish my soul among the colours and warmth of my incredible friends.
How you can help fight loneliness
Not everyone is ready to be their own best friend; if I’m honest, it is no substitute for real, authentic friendships and connections. I’m not sure we can contend with the metaphorical hug of a community.
Like they say in the Cheers theme tune:
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.”
Our community centers and local coffee shops are full of heroes who welcome all the lost and lonely souls by name and intuit their needs.
Here are my lessons for staving off loneliness.
1 - Volunteer
Many years ago, I co-founded a community running group. It grew organically into a successful and popular organisation. My motivations behind the group were not personal, yet I was rewarded with a sense of purpose, relevance, and fulfillment.
I have volunteered for several charities over the years, and on each occasion, I have benefited from an alleviation of my existential loneliness.
A study in The Journals of Gerontology from a few years ago looked at the benefits of volunteering for recently widowed adults. This demographic understandably reports significantly higher loneliness than those still married. Volunteering for 2+ hours per week alleviated participants’ loneliness levels, placing them in the same threshold as the still-married category.
Not only does volunteering do good, but it helps you feel good yourself.
2 - Be the initiator and gain friends
It’s easy to sit back and feel shitty that you don’t hear from anyone. But when did you last initiate contact with others?
We are encouraged to invest in our romantic relationships, yet how many people intentionally invest quality time and attention into their friendships? I do!
I said before; I make friends easily. But it’s keeping them and ensuring a mutual appreciation of each other that is the hard thing.
Friendships develop in interesting ways. I’ve made friends from people I’ve met randomly on dog walks and deepened friendships by regularly investing time into them.
Did you know it takes up to 30 hours together for a casual friendship to develop? Then, it takes up to 50 hours for a friendship to occur. Moving up to a good friend at 140 hours, and best friends require 300 hours spent together before they emerge.
Be the initiator.
When you initiate social interactions, you start the momentum for a reciprocal pattern and are more likely to receive invites and messages.
A quick word of caution thought.
If you are always the initiator, it can induce a sense of loneliness in itself. It can leave you feeling undervalued. The reciprocity laws should kick in; if they don’t, be wary of investing too much energy where it isn’t appreciated. I have learned this lesson the hard way and am still in recovery from it.
3 - Get out and about and indulge in random interactions
I’m peculiar; I hate going to the hairdresser due to the inane conversation. And yet, I love random interactions with strangers, whether it’s a benign conversation with a barista or a few shared giggles with someone in a queue behind me.
I smile and greet other walkers or runners when I’m out and about.
In the last few years, the odd five minutes a day of face-to-face contact with other dog walkers has fended off my loneliness fog.
Go outside and be open to those who you meet. Smile, find areas of commonality, and be kind with your words and actions. You never know how enormous this little gesture can be to others, let alone yourself.
4 - Disconnect to connect
The more disconnected I feel from my friends and society, the more I swipe, scroll, and gaze at a screen. It’s not healthy.
Social media can make me feel lonely; according to this study, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Social media is beneficial in helping us arrange our social life and stay connected with friends. But when it becomes our social life, issues can arise.
Occasionally, I delete the apps from my phone and take a social media hiatus. Often, I don’t even realise how disconnected from the real world I have become.
If you know someone who is an excessive social media user, they are likely just looking for a connection. Can you initiate contact with them and arrange a social?
Humans are social creatures
Even the most introverted humans need some form of social contact to stave off loneliness. While our needs differ, our search for connection fuses us. Never feel ashamed of feeling lonely, and please learn to recognise these feelings and work to weave a more substantial social web for yourself.
Have you experienced loneliness in your life? How did you overcome this? I’d love to hear your input in the comments.
Sunday’s newsletter for paid subscribers will explain why active love is essential for relationships to thrive.
If you get value from these articles, I invite you to upgrade to a paid membership. But there is no pressure to do so.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it with a friend and subscribe to the Abnormally Normal newsletter.
Don’t forget to give us some love on our socials.
Abnormally Normal on Twitter & Instagram.
Abnormally Normal is for everyone who feels like they don’t fit in.
You can also find my writings and musings on Medium, where I write about kindness, psychology, social injustice, the nuances of living childfree, friendship, social justice, feminism, personal growth, and much more.
Here are free links to some of my most popular articles on Medium.
Why We Should Encourage Others To Talk About Their Late Loved Ones
How Childless And Childfree Women Are An Essential Part Of Society’s Cohesion
5 Ways To Improve Your Conversation Skills And Build Deeper Connections
Did The Murder Of George Floyd Lead To The End Of My 17-Year Career In Scotland?
Corpse Surrogacy: Is It Ok To Use Brain-Dead Women As Baby Incubators?