‘I feel lonely’, is something few of us would dare admit but almost all of us will have felt at some point in our lives. Whether in response to the end of a relationship, moving to a new city or, say, undergoing extreme social isolation in order to survive a global pandemic, experiencing loneliness seems to be an unavoidable part of being a human.
Yet, as we likely already know, loneliness is incredibly damaging to our health and wellbeing. With more and more of us feeling lonely, its prevalence is something of a public health concern . This fact has prompted the UK government to appoint its first Minister for Loneliness (yep, really) alongside the first cross-governmental strategy to try and tackle it. As part of Loneliness Awareness Week, we dig deeper into what it means to be lonely and consider what overcoming loneliness might look like - so that we might live a little bit better every day, together.
What does it mean to be lonely?
After a year of restrictions, perhaps we don’t need to spell out what it means to be lonely, and as it’s a highly subjective experience, there’s some disagreement about how exactly we recognise it. Vivek H Murthy, author and researcher, traces loneliness back, a short 52 million years, to the first primates, whose survival depended on being part of a social group. In the absence of social bonds, the increased likelihood of dying was obviously quite distressing for our primate ancestors, and Murthy believes that modern-day loneliness is an expression of this primal instinct.
Whilst British historian Fay Bound Alberti thinks of loneliness as a modern ailment that didn’t really exist prior to the 19th century, she believes that not having meaningful connections to others is central to loneliness. Although there are disagreements about its origins and precise definitions, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say we can understand loneliness as the feeling of being socially isolated (a sentiment that definitely resonates with our pale-zoom-fatigued-’Barbara-you’re-on-mute’-bodies 18 months on from the beginning of the pandemic).
Loneliness as a public health concern
Yet, if we look back to before nationwide self-isolation, we would find loneliness was on the horizon long before the pandemic hit. According to the campaign to end loneliness, in England alone an estimated 25 million people feel lonely, equivalent to 45% of the adult population . What makes this particularly worrying are the myriad of health issues associated with loneliness: Research shows that loneliness can increase our risk of depression and anxiety ten-fold , and other studies have revealed an association between loneliness and increased risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke - a risk-factor comparable to heavy smoking . Loneliness puts a real strain on our healthcare system- with an estimated 1 in 10 people who visit the GP, believed to do so because they feel lonely rather than due to ill health. The impact of loneliness can also be felt in the wider economy, a study by The Big Lunch found, in their estimation, that social isolation costs the UK economy a whopping £32 billion every year . So then, loneliness is just as bad for us as it feels - and with the restrictions we’ve all experienced over the past year, now feels like an opportune moment to tackle it.
"Nobody should feel alone or be left with no one to turn to. Loneliness is a serious issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds and it is right that we tackle it head on." Minister for Loneliness
Loneliness is reflected in our culture, but not our private conversations
Whilst Justin Bieber, Syliva Plath, The Smiths and Mary Shelley have all used their art to express feelings of loneliness, across different genres (and centuries), loneliness is still not something we talk about at large. There is a prevailing fear of social stigma surrounding loneliness, which prevents many of us from opening up about our experiences. The Minister for Loneliness has sought to encourage more of us to talk about it with the launch of the ‘Let’s talk loneliness campaign’. Although loneliness is not a recognised mental health condition, like depression or anxiety, those of us experiencing it can often feel shame and isolation as a result. In fact, those with long-term illness or disability are themselves much more likely to feel lonely . It makes sense then, that tackling the taboo around loneliness, could make space for a broader conversation about how we can reduce social stigma around mental health, illness and disability as a whole. The logic follows the idea; that the more of us who decide to talk about these isolating experiences, the less isolating they are likely to feel.
How can we overcome loneliness?
Whilst raising awareness of the issue is important, we need to take meaningful action to ensure more of us are getting our much-needed fill of social interaction. This is the motivation behind the UK’s ‘social prescribing’ initiative . Social prescribing is a community-centred approach to health, which recognises that our health and wellbeing are largely determined by a range of social, economic and environmental factors. Social prescribing allows healthcare professionals to refer people to local non-clinical services which can range from swimming lessons to financial advisory services. The promise of social prescribing is so huge that an estimated 900,000 people are expected to be referred to social prescribing by 2023 .
Reflections on moving towards a less-lonely society
In addition to working towards the improved wellbeing of our minds and bodies, there is no denying the importance of human connection for our wellbeing, as we have previously written about. What we know for definite, is that talking about feeling lonely is an important first step towards ending surrounding stigma and getting better connected.
One of the best expressions of loneliness we’ve come across is Rupi Kaur’s poem:
“the irony of loneliness is we all feel it at the same time - together”. Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers
Final thoughts: Are you feeling lonely? Talking about our feelings can be tough. Have a read of ‘Starting a conversation about mental health’ for a spot of encouragement, support and top-tips on opening up. And remember, we’re in this together.
Loneliness Survey (2018). Cigna.
Loneliness and its association with depressed mood, anxiety symptoms, and sleep problems in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic (2021). Cambridge University.
Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System (2020). National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The cost of disconnected communities (2016). Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) for The Big Lunch.
Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: a scoping review (2017). Health & social care in the community.