Loneliness is becoming an increasingly common problem.
A recent joint study by the Central Queensland University (Australia) and the University of Stirling (UK) revealed that as many as one in three Australian adults say they experience loneliness. (1)
Who's at risk?
Contrary to what might be expected, the study showed that we don't get lonelier as we get older. The age group reporting the lowest levels of loneliness were those aged 50 plus. Loneliness was shown to start to increase for those aged in their 20s, peaking for individuals aged between 40 and 49.
In addition to age as a risk factor, low income groups and individuals without any religious affiliation were more likely to experience social isolation.
The experience of loneliness
Often loneliness is conceptualised in terms of being alone. Yet most people relish the experience of solitude from time to time and, conversely, many have reported a sense of isolation even when in the presence of a group of people.
Loneliness is best thought of in relation to missing a particular element of human interaction. For some, it might involve what has been termed 'social loneliness', a sense of not being part of a group; for others, it may pertain more to an 'emotional loneliness', an inability to connect with others on a more intimate basis, a lack of someone with whom to share personal concerns and experiences.
How does loneliness put us at risk?
These figures are concerning because loneliness has been linked to a number of adverse physical and mental health outcomes, including increased risk of heart disease (2), immune system effects (3) and depression. (4) In addition, people often turn to behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and other drug use to cope with their isolation, each with the potential to generate further health issues.
What perpetuates loneliness?
Individuals often seek to explain their poor social relationships as a function of who they are. This may be based on their own self-evaluation or on past negative social experiences.
Common is the assumption that they will be disliked by others, resulting in increased self-consciousness and anxiety about evaluation by others. This may eventually lead to a withdrawal from social activities and an avoidance of new people and situations.
In doing so, the mechanisms underlying loneliness can be reinforced. While social interaction with others can sometimes be difficult, in withdrawing from social contact, an important source of self-stimulation and feedback is lost. Individuals are not exposed to contradictory evidence regarding their likeability, their social worth.
What to do about loneliness?
Identify unmet needs
Everyone's experience of loneliness is unique. There is no 'one size fits all' solution. It is therefore important for the individual to begin by working out which or his or her social interaction needs are not being met. Is the loneliness social or emotional? For example, is it simply a question of trying to build a larger group of friends or is it more important to focus on the development of closer friendships?
Becoming involved does not necessarily mean doing anything extraordinary. It can mean simply looking for ways to get involved with people in the course of normal daily activities.
If opportunities are limited, seeking out situations that facilitate greater involvement with others is useful. Where activities line up with personal interests, it increases the chance of meeting people with whom the individual is likely to have something in common. Pursuing volunteer work can also be useful. As well as gaining exposure to new people and situations, the process of helping others can foster self-esteem.
Work at developing your social skills
Making the first move can be extremely difficult where shyness is involved. However, even something as simple as saying hello can be beneficial. Experiment with getting to know others.
It is important not to rush friendship by sharing too quickly or expecting others to do the same. Building deeper friendships follows a natural process and takes time.
Don't let past experiences colour new interactions
Recognise past experiences for what they are and be open to new opportunities. Bear in mind that everyone is different. Be willing to give others a chance and try to get to know them.
Learn to enjoy alone-time
Use alone-time for self-discovery. Take time to learn to take care of emotional needs.
Use time alone for personal enjoyment. Do things that give pleasure, such as listening to music or reading a good book. Try not to use this time to worry about problems.
Key in reducing loneliness is a willingness to extend the hand of friendship to others. It can be as simple as keeping an eye out for others who may be experiencing loneliness, accepting and embracing individual differences and being prepared to offer an invitation.
Lauder, W., Mummery, K. & Sharkey, S. (2006). Social capital, age and religiosity in people who are lonely. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 15, 334-340.