What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is defined as “a feeling of lack of companionship or deep relationships with other people”. Many people think that to be lonely, you need to be isolated from other people, but that isn’t always the case. Loneliness can be felt in a crowded train, in the workplace, or even in the company of friends and family. Although social isolation is linked to loneliness, loneliness seems to stem from a lack of connection with the people around you, rather than a lack of people around you. In other words, quality over quantity.
Why Are We Alone?
Thousands of years ago, human societies were much more tight-knit. With increased foot traffic in these times, it was common to know each person you saw and even be in tune with the happenings of their lives. However with the invention of cars and aeroplanes, we don’t run into each other as much as we used to, and the miles between our family and friends has increased as we spread out. This is one of the many factors that have led to Australia’s growing social fragmentation. In more recent times, instant messaging services such as Facebook and Snapchat, which once sought to make connection with others easier, have ironically been reported as one of our generations’ biggest setback towards social cohesion.
With social cohesion and loneliness closely linked, loneliness is not far behind in it’s impact on connection. According to studies conducted in 2018 by The Australian Psychology Society, 1 in 4 people report they are currently experiencing an episode of loneliness, with over 50% of people reporting they feel lonely at least 1 day each week. To appreciate the weight of these statistics, it’s important to know what the effects of loneliness are.
The Impacts of Loneliness
Research shows that loneliness correlates to a decline in mental health in a range of ways, including but not limited to impacts on self-esteem and anxiety. On top of this, studies suggest that loneliness has a major impact on our general health and well-being too, with some experts comparing these damaging effects to those associated with smoking or excessive drinking. Health complications linked to loneliness can also include reduced immunity system functioning, including slower healing and elevated blood pressure, ultimately adding to the potential of loneliness leading to a shorter lifespan in extreme cases.
Protecting against Loneliness
Although the statistics surrounding loneliness seem pretty grim, there are some proven ways that we can protect ourselves from loneliness and bring about positive change for ourselves and the people around us. The ideal settings for combating loneliness are situations where you and at least one other person are striving together towards (what you each consider) a meaningful goal.
In the Workplace
Consistent paid employment is very important, especially for single women and men who find a large portion of social support and friendships from their jobs. However, not all jobs fill this hole and some might even alienate us. This is usually due to lack of cooperation (ie. uninvolved workmates) or a lack of meaning in the work we’re doing (ie. feeling it’s a dead-end job). If you feel like your work is adding to your loneliness, make sure that these needs are being met.
Participating in Clubs and Sporting Groups
Some of us have been a part of a club since we were children. However, if you missed the boat, it’s never too late to get something going between friends, workmates or other like-minded individuals. As long as you find it meaningful, the activity can be just about anything. If you’re feeling creative, a book club or pottery studio could be a good way to open up discussion on the books you’ve read or pots you’ve created. If you’re more on the sporty side, you can get a team together for basketball, footy or soccer among other sports. It doesn’t have to be super competitive. As long as there is meaningful cooperation involved, it should hit the spot.
Having good personal relationships
The last and most obvious of these protective factors is having quality personal relationships. According to research, women seem to be much more adaptable than men in reaching out and keeping their friendships strong. Men on the other hand are much more likely to lose these connections to atrophy, with some men finding themselves in a perpetual state of loneliness in their later years once their school friends continue to drop off their radar.
Now that the lockdown isn’t keeping us in our homes, it's high-time to strengthen those connections. If you haven’t seen someone in a while, maybe hit them up for a coffee. Although an over-reliance on social media apps can be troublesome, they’re a good way to reach out and plan something face-to-face with someone you haven’t seen in a while. It might take more effort to meet up with someone, but your mental health will thank you for it.
Not only will keeping these connections help to protect you against loneliness, it’s always good to have people around to depend on when things potentially go south. Each of us has a unique set of skills to fix certain problems. Life is turbulent and when a problem arises, the more people you have around, the more likely someone can help you out and act to assist. This goes both ways; you can help others with your particular skill set too. Sometimes this skill can be as simple as listening. You don’t have to have all the answers, but lending an ear could go a long way for someone in need.
Don’t take advantage of the connections you have now. Humans are very much social creatures and each of us craves connection with others to sustain us through the rough times in our lives. So reach out and make sure you get to spend time with the people who you walk away from feeling enriched. Join a club, start up a poker night with your mates, message a friend you miss. Let’s keep those catch ups going.
To get in touch with mental health support services, click here.