We are now in the midst of what is being called the loneliness epidemic. More people than ever before are reported as being lonely and evidence is accumulating of the detrimental effects loneliness has on physical and mental health. But what is loneliness? And why are we becoming more and more lonely?
The notion of loneliness is not a new one and there are a number of ways it is defined. Crucial to this definition is that it is a distressing and unpleasant feeling. This differs greatly from solitude or just being alone, if you are alone or isolated and happy you are, by definition, not lonely.
It is also defined as a difference between desired and actual social relationships. That is, an individual’s perception of their social interactions, this is an integral part of defining loneliness. It is how you feel about a situation.
A large German study recently undertaken shows that loneliness can change over our lifespan and is not limited to old age. Our images of ideal social networks change with time depending on our circumstances. While a teenager might find having only two friends to be a relatively low number and feel lonely an older person might treasure still having two close confidants and be content.
Although it is based on our feelings and perceptions, it doesn’t negate the fact that it is a very real and genuine problem.
Evolutionary psychologists and scholars such as John Cacioppo who research loneliness and its effect on the brain,point to the idea that as social creatures our chances of survival are often greater if we co operate. “We have survived as a species not because we’re fast or strong or have natural weapons in our fingertips, but because of social protection.”
The theory is that we have consequently evolved to value human relationships. It is therefore natural that if we feel we don’t have the necessary connections and support from other people our bodies and minds will react with a stress response, this motivates us to seek and cultivate connections with others.
There are many possible reasons for the rise of loneliness, some of which we will be further analysing in blog posts in the weeks to come but some crucial causes to consider are:
- A rise in urban living
- Increased stigmatisation of loneliness
- Competitiveness in education and work
- Social media comparisons and the influence of technology
- Media images of idealised lives
- Living longer
Regardless of the underlying causes many people are lonely and it’s a big problem. There is a lot of research but there is still a lot that we don’t know.
What can be done to tackle loneliness? At this stage what is vital is to start the dialogue and reach an understanding of what the problem is in order to make some real and positive change. We are working hard at Friends for Good to develop awareness of this issue and to create initiatives to tackle the problem in Australia.
What do you think is causing the rise in loneliness? How can we work together to create greater connectivity? Please share your thoughts with us.