Research suggests that we are becoming more and more lonely across the Western world. The long term health effects of loneliness have now been well documented with some estimates suggesting loneliness increases our risk of death by 26%. It is dangerous and it is killing us.
One essential way we may begin to tackle this issue is by understanding the concepts underlying it and starting an honest and open dialogue. A key component of defining loneliness as identified by the earliest researchers in the field is that the feeling is a distressing one. It is so distressing in fact that we now know our bodies react with a stress response, increases in norepinephrine and cortisol. This reaction affects our brain functioning, immune system ultimately our long term health.
Loneliness is fundamentally different to just being alone which is not necessarily distressing. Many writers and artists have spoken of the creative joys of solitude and the time for reflection this creates. Martin Buber wrote “Solitude is the place of purification” and Maria Isabel Barreno “It is only alone, truly alone, that one bursts apart, springs forth”. Being alone and without the company of others is not in itself detrimental although, of course, lack of contact and companionship are key factors in the creation of feelings of loneliness. It is when this time alone leads to feelings of distress, sadness and anxiety that it is understood to be loneliness.
Although there are benefits to solitude the objective state of social isolation can also cause a similar stress response one study (http://pps.sagepub.com/content/10/2/227.full) in Perspectives on Psychological Science has found. That is, our bodies react with a stress response if we are without contact for prolonged periods of time, this can be just as damaging as the subjective feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness is also often defined as the difference between desired and actual social relationships. That is the perceived difference. It is a subjective concept that varies from person to person and across an individuals lifespan. What we feel as loneliness at 15 may look entirely different to the aches of loneliness at 85. This is important as interventions and initiatives that aim at tackling loneliness can focus on getting people together but also need to understand the importance of the quality of those relationships.
We can all probably think of times when we have been in a crowded room and felt lonely or been completely alone and felt peace and tranquillity. In finding solutions to the problem we need to on the one hand offer people opportunities to make connections but also help them to feel less lonely through the quality of those connections and the human closeness they bring.
The stigma surrounding loneliness is sadly persistent and enduring despite how many people are struggling with the issue. Olivia Laing writer of The Lonely City recently said “One of the key feelings of loneliness is you want to reach out but you can’t. The stigma around loneliness is so pervasive that people feel like they can’t tell others, that it will drive others away.”
It is our challenge now to try to further understand loneliness and its causes, to talk about it openly and to look for solutions together to overcome the problem.
Eleisha is a psychology student and volunteer for Friends for Good an Australian not-for-profit organization that aims at raising awareness of loneliness and providing volunteer based initiatives for positive change.