Lisa Fraser delves into the world of loneliness and offers some practical approaches to help tackle it.
The various worldwide lockdowns during the Covid pandemic put an old phenomenon under a new spotlight. While loneliness is not a modern invention, perhaps more people today are experiencing it than in any prior age.
But perhaps too we’re more aware of it. Neighbours paid attention – maybe for the first time – to the widow living down the road and the media urged us to look out for the elderly.
Lockdown is over now, and we’re (mostly) back to our busy lives, filling our days with noise and activities. Yet I keep thinking about loneliness, and not only when I walk down the street where I live. When I take my seat in a bus, I look around and I wonder how many passengers are feeling lonely. When I’m in the park, I wonder what is going through the minds of those groups of kids lying on the grass, not chatting, but looking at their phones.
Old age and the sense of loss following the death of a loved one are the most discussed forms of loneliness, but if we look beneath the surface we can measure the true size of the iceberg.
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness (CtEL), 45% of adults, or 25 million people, feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England alone.
Government data found that, statistically, loneliness is more widespread among women, single parents, people living in deprived areas and people with an illness or a disability (and let’s remember that not all disabilities are visible).
Also, worryingly, the generation that is described as the most connected thus far in human history is also the generation feeling the most disconnected, as people aged 16-24 were the most likely to report loneliness.
This demonstrates that loneliness is a societal issue; it’s everyone’s problem – or should be – at every stage of life.
The impact loneliness has on our lives is well-documented: loneliness increases the direct risk of death; it contributes to health conditions like heart issues, obesity and diabetes, and to mental health issues like depression. It also increases the tendency to self-harm. Psychology experts have dubbed issues like addictions and eating disorders ‘love sickness’ – perhaps we should rather say ‘lack-of-love sickness’.
Understanding the roots of loneliness is the first step to tackling it. We need to face the hard truth if we want to bring change, and put in place the measures needed to prevent it – both at a personal level, and as local communities.
Based on personal research, discussions with people, and the testimony of mental health experts, I think we can identify three classic loneliness ‘profiles’.
The first profile has been historically the most documented, because it’s the most visible. It includes widows, the elderly housebound and people with a disability, who struggle navigating a world made for those who can walk unaided. They lack interactions and they don’t have enough people (or, in some cases, no one) to talk to during the day (or for days). In this first profile, people are lonely because they’re alone!
Those who live on their own, always doing their grocery alone, or needing home deliveries, are easier to spot, if we decide to pay attention and if we allow ourselves to be moved. This category is bound to grow in number, with the demographic changes and ageing populations in Western countries.
It also grows because of life choices people make and their economic impact. Tills in supermarkets are closing; we do our grocery online; we no longer socialise at the local pub. Shop employees are under pressure, and their employers don’t factor in time to talk to lonely customers in planning work schedules.
This loneliness is also a consequence of growing concerns about public debts and tax levels. Buildings and services where our grandparents used to do administrative tasks, like Post Offices or local surgeries, are disappearing. This trend dramatically increased during Covid to ensure staff safety.
While these small interactions in daily life were not the most fulfilling, they offered some relief to the generations before us. But it’s unlikely that aspects of the pre-internet, pre-Covid world will come back anytime soon.
For some people, the internet offers a window to the world and even relieves loneliness. But we are talking about people who have easy access to the internet; who are trained to use IT devices and keep up with change; and who are able to find meaning in interactions on screen. That leaves out a significant number of people.
In the second profile of loneliness, we find people who are surrounded by others but crave quality interactions and genuine companionship.
It may be the single parent who is at the forefront of every baking contest at school but who goes back home alone with a child to take care of. It might be the co-worker who diligently delivers their work projects, but has no friend in the workplace and dreads their social desert during the weekend.
It could be the person who turns up at all the meet-up events in their local areas, the ‘familiar face’, but who has no emotional support when hardship strikes.
It’s good to have the physical presence of others around us, but presence alone is not enough. We need meaningful interactions, someone who scratches the surface.
Shallow encounters can, in fact, be a source of frustration, especially when we feel we have to wear a public mask. What if the ‘friendly face’ or the ‘serviceable colleague’ are, in fact, lonely people trying to create deeper connections? Can we really sense how people we meet regularly, briefly, feel? Or do we (unconsciously) stay on the surface, because we’re busy and struggling with our own worries?
Recent structural changes in society are increasing the risks of falling into the loneliness trap. Families are no longer the structuring core unit that they used to be, with divorce ever-more common (in 2020, the average duration of marriage at the time of divorce was less than 12 years), and more reluctance to get married in the first place (marriage rates for opposite-sex couples were the lowest on record in 2018).
The contemporary stress on free relationships, where one can come and go without fixed bonds, can also add to loneliness because relationships end and people are left alone to put the pieces of their life back together again. The fashionable word is now ‘partner’, to stress the merely consensual nature of any relationship, but a partner has no obligation to stay with you ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part’. Perhaps we never realised how lonely unfettered freedom could be.
Local communities have been eroded by the lack of funding, and we’ve all noticed how the youth clubs the ‘boomers’ enjoyed have mostly disappeared from our neighbourhoods.
Religious structures are less mainstream and structuring, with less than half of the UK population saying they have a religious affiliation. We’re less surrounded as individuals; the structures that used to catch the previous generations when they were falling into the rabbit hole of solitude are weaker.
Also, we’re more mobile: we leave our home town for uni; our jobs call us to move to bigger cities, or even to change country. People moving around are less likely to be caught in time if they start crumbling.
The picture is not all bleak: we’re freer than ever; in most western countries, we’re allowed to love who we want to love, and to live where we want to live. All this can be a source of great joy and empowerment. The other side of the coin, however, is that we’re more vulnerable to loneliness if our expectations are not met.
In the third profile of loneliness, we meet people who are disconnected from those around them – even, perhaps, from the one they love.
I’m thinking about the only friend in the circle of friends from uni who doesn’t have a child or a spouse. I’m thinking about the person who does not find a purpose in their job, and who doesn’t connect with colleagues who are passionate about their work. These people are surrounded, but they feel out of place, as if they did not belong, as if they were imposters, or as if they were somehow failing.
This type of loneliness comes and goes as we move through life. Perhaps such people will find a loved one, and be hired for the role they want. The likelihood is that one day life will be better.
But this type of loneliness is reinforced by peer pressure, and by the expectations that society puts on our shoulders: the white, slim, highly educated, service-oriented, apparently successful society can make us feel lonely. What happens if we don’t fit in this social media dream? We feel left out. It’s painful.
These societal expectations are made even more burdensome by social media. The volume of videos, pictures and articles that are being poured online every single minute makes it harder for younger generations, who haven’t known any other world, to thrive outside of this normative frame.
The types of societal expectations weighing on us have evolved quickly. My grand-parents were expected to think about the common good: it often required sacrifices, even the sacrifice of one’s life; they couldn’t just focus on their own happiness.
But modern generations are told, on the other hand, that they should be happy; that they should become their true self, create their own unique paths … while fitting into a common (undefined) frame. They have to fit in while being different, and without any strong example, but a million (mostly online) models.
And they should be happy, remember?
These dual, sometimes contradictory injunctions, can create a sense of disconnection with peers who seem to get it right in their online profiles …
Loneliness is a complex issue, which cuts across various characteristics such as age, gender, social background, societal status, ethnicity and culture, physical and mental health.
Reducing loneliness at the scale society requires needs a multi-faceted strategy that we cannot deliver at an individual level.
Yet, it doesn’t mean we’re powerless: awareness of the factors that can trigger loneliness is a big step.
It should encourage us to avoid making assumptions: we cannot guess how someone is feeling by looking at the number of followers they have on social media, or because they are married to someone who ticks the boxes to be defined as successful. Instead, we should be mindful – actively mindful – of the vulnerabilities of our friends, family members, and colleagues.
The way we interact with people around us can also make a difference. For instance, instead of the usual, “How are you? All good?”, we could be brave and try to ask: “How are you feeling? What made you wake up this morning? Who are you excited to meet this week? Are you happy where you live, do you have neighbours that you trust around you?”
Changing our patterns of communications is not easy. But from personal experience, no one has ever reacted negatively to these questions. On the contrary, most people expressed gratitude that someone was trying to connect with them.
These small changes are not just ‘spinning’: awareness and more thoughtful questions can help spot issues like depressive moods, actual depression, or suicidal risk.
Almost one in two people (possibly including ourselves!) feels lonely sometimes in the UK. Let us think about this shocking truth next time we go back home, or sit down at work, and let us think about what we can do, humbly, at our level, every single day to make a difference.
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