Monday, May 15, 2006

The loneliness epidemic

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?

Become involved

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.

Help others

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.


jumpinginpuddles said...

but even surrounded by people you can still be lonely

healthpsych said...

Exactly. Loneliness doesn't always equate to being alone. Hence, for some the solution might be to build groups of friends, for others it might be to foster a deeper connection with a single individual. For others, it might be something else completely.

jumpinginpuddles said...

yes but the assumption is you need to do something, but sometimes lonliness comes so far deep within that it isnt people you are seeking but healing.
Lonliness is a word used for so many other emotions i dont think people have quite grasped that yet.

tkj said...

I'll take the shallow end of the argument hear and say that just getting into a relationship would quash a lot of these problems!

Easier said than done though.

healthpsych said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
healthpsych said...

Blogger hint #1...never comment before the first cup of coffee ;)

Thank you for making that very valid point. Loneliness is often used for a wide range of emotions, possibly because no other word seems to fit.

The loneliness referred to in this study relates to social isolation and the post is therefore structured around strategies for people who might want to overcome that.

Would be interested to hear about people's experiences and strategies
for dealing with loneliness (in that respect).


Ah, if life were only that simple :)

For some, it's finding that relationship in the first place. For others, in a relationship that's not working, it's where they can be loneliest.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Wow, the one in three statistic made my eyes open really wide. Lonliness is a terrible thing to experience. Knowing that a person is feeling isolated or alone pulls my heartstrings. Great post!


Anonymous said...

Loneliness has been with me for about five years. I used to be a very outgoing wild person, with no problem in the lonely department. I felt like my wild nature was self-destructive, so I quit drinkin and my wild ways. Hoping my life would be more focused and fullfilling. Since then, I have gone on few dates, isolated my self, and have extreme loneliness. I have been unable to break back out of my shell. Thanks again, I found your article inspiring and inciteful.

Jackal said...

Good to see someone actively addressing this issue.

As one who knows the pain of isolation that loneliness brings it is a difficult place to survive.

Sharkysmachine said...

I feel alone all the time and have for years. I have no friends so to speak of and have failed at everything in life, professionally, personally and financially. When I speak to peers I am totally ashamed that I have accomplished nothing as they have accomplished so much and I am mystified as to why. I cannot even support myself for instance (m I have landed on my mother's couch) yet I know I am intelligent but I cannot find a decent enough job. My last reciprocal relationship where the love I had for a woman was actually returned was twenty years ago and she left me for her married boss. I am still saddened and strangely still furious about that. I feel complete and total frustration with life waking up angry every day, going to bed in a white hot rage every night. I find it impossible to meet new people particularly women as at this age (mid 40's) they are looking for someone to look after them, not to really share a life with.

It is extremely difficult to meet new people and make new friends at this point in life. Most people are into their families and long known friends and have no room for someone new, especially someone with problems like being desperately alone.

Alexandre Costa said...

This is not a straight forward issue... the last comment was touching, and I understand the poster... because I am lonely myself.
My advice is this. Enrol yourself in group activities (sports, courses, etc) you can meet people that way and find yourself again.

Dispite all is said, this modern society enhances social exclusion and extreme lonliness. This is very dangerous. We have to change our values and sense of community.

I know I'm not perfect, but I'm trying hard to better myself. I dont have a good job nor I'm satisfied with it. I am 31 years old and I'm still, technically, sexually a virgin. I tend to look at women as peers like me or better, I dont use them for my pleasure and it is difficult for me to fall in love, and that's the only way for me to have intimacy. I like that part of me dispite of the loneliness it has caused me. I'm honest in my feelings and my loving passion is overwhelming sometimes and that is a cause of grat pain when I'm rejected. Though I'd do it all over again because every sacrifice is worth when there is true love.

The underlying problem is that people in general search on others, what others can do for them (ex. women search a man who can take care of them) instead of asking what themselfs can do to others!

I am absolutely sure of one thing: Love heals all and whoever longs for Love has a lot of Love to give.

Sharkysmachine said...

I read the latest comment and I feel for you. I have gotten involved in such groups in the past but they only made me feel more alone. My personality is creative and thus kind of strange to most people. Also, in teh last two groups I was a part of (a church singles group and an East Indian social group) I was told that I might as well leave after years of involvement because I was not going to be accepted because of my color. (I am mixed race) The church group was all white and the Indian group was well, Indian and they only accept Indians and whites as potential mates it seems. After the second time I just gave up. Besides, the city I live in is expensive just to go out the door in.

I am going through something that is really bothering me and I have to share it if only because I have to tell someone. I just found out that the woman who left me so many years ago was on a lecture tour and it brought her to the city I now live in. I had moved away from where we were and had lots of distance between us. I found out that not only was she here giving the lecture but that is was one I was supposed to go and listen to and it was only four blocks from my home. (This is my hometown.) The first time she was ever here was when we were lovers more than twenty years ago and I took her on a tour of that lovely campus she just lectured at. After finding this out I cannot help but wonder if she thought of me as she visited. I know this is crazy but I also feel like God, whom I have trouble believing in these days is screwing with my head. Knowing that she was here, so close by and that I have longed to talk to her again just makes me ache inside. I cannot really approach her as she was led to believe I was a monster by her boss/lover who himself was the real monster.

I am descending into a deep depression and am seriously considering taking my life again. (I think about it every day but only get really bad about it now and then.) Each time I feel this way I get closer to doing it. It is as if I am being worn down.

I hope that you find love in your life but never love so much that your life depends on it. I made that mistake and cannot pull myself back. I look forward to see if I have a future but the road ahead ends at a precipice.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Normally I don't post on these things, but the last poster's comments really disturbed me. I don't know how long ago this was published, but Sharkysmachine, I legitimately feel for you. Please, don't listen to this other anonymous person. I'm certain I am much younger than you, but I have a similar personality to yours (I'm the unique creative type), have experienced great degrees of loneliness and, from my earliest days in elementary school until my eighth grade year I was regularly ostracized by my peers. In my darkest times my thoughts meandered to that of taking my own life, but I'm so happy I didn't. In the years since then, I've grown in confidence and today, as a senior in high school, I'm class president and have more friends than I know what to do with.

Now, I have devoted my life to helping others out of the same pit of loneliness I was in, as I wouldn't wish those feelings upon my worst enemy. Trust in God and believe that you can make it through this. You're the only you in the world, and you were born that way so be proud of it, and don't deprive the world of the great things you could be someday. I'm probably rambling, but I just wanted you to know that even though I do not know you at all, I care about you as a human being and want you to ignore the senseless "advice" this other anonymous person is offering. Things can get better, just smile and be yourself and remember that you are beloved and perfect the way you are. (:

HP said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for drawing my attention to this comment, This is a very old post and I have only just recently returned to blogging. I cannot tell how old this comment is but I will see if I can find out more about it or, if not, remove it.