The state of being starved of companionship is a health issue that is now being taken seriously. Gemma Harrison reports on how one’s life can be affected by loneliness, and what we can do to help those with no-one around.
Songs about loneliness have been among the most beloved of composers since the year dot.
However, in the real world, loneliness is one of the last taboos; one that is all too conveniently linked with the elderly, the homeless, the socially-challenged, and the unemployed.
But is that the full picture? In my own country of the UK, a study by the British Red Cross and The Co-Op has found that there are nine million people (from a population of 65m) that are ‘always or often lonely’. That’s a lot of suffering.
The causes can be from widowhood, poor health, disability, unemployment, or simply the lack of a family or a partner. It doesn’t mean the sufferer is ‘sad’ or socially inept.
And it can happen to anybody. I used to go home to an empty flat every night from a busy job. I was in a new city and didn’t know anyone. Too tired to pick up the phone and arrange to go out, I was also ashamed to admit that I hadn’t got any plans for the weekend, or beyond.
I should have realised that there were plenty of people in the same office in the same position. If only I had ‘fessed up, laughed it off, phoned some of them up and gone out!
But firstly, let’s not confuse ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’. The former is when you got home absolutely whacked and just want to run a hot bath, have a TV dinner, and unwind on the sofa while watching your favourite boxed set. The latter is when you really would like to have some company, and can’t be bothered to make a proper meal if it’s only you that will be eating it.
The British charity Age UK has also warned that loneliness can ‘seriously affect a person’s health and well-being’.
Vivek Murthy, a former US Surgeon-General, has called loneliness an ‘epidemic’ and has gone as far as saying it can reduce a person’s lifespan.
Dr. Murthy has also called on US companies to make ‘fostering social connections a strategic priority.’
He says: “As a society we have built stronger WiFi connections over time, but our personal connections have deteriorated.
“Well, for many people, admitting that you’re lonely is essentially the equivalent to admitting that you’re not worthy of being loved.
“’That’s really what underlies this stigma around loneliness. We are recognising that loneliness is a lot more prevalent than we thought it was. The data is also showing that there are many more adults who are admitting to being lonely now than two decades ago.”
Modern lifestyles have contributed to this, says Dr. Murthy. These include people moving away from home to work in new cities, substituting online connections for real friendships, and spending time on social media in the belief that it’s equivalent to face-to-face contact.
He is right, of course. But while one can measure other hazards to health such as obesity because we can see it, how can we measure something that is largely abstract?
• Recognise it
If you are feeling lonely you are not the only one.
• There is nothing wrong with you
It doesn’t mean you are not worthy of friendship or being loved.
• Reach out to people
If you’re not lonely, it’s very likely that there’s someone around you who is, so that’s why it’s important for us to reach out to them.
Dr. Murthy says: “Loneliness puts us in a stress state. When that happens, that can have an impact on your heath.
“The data around loneliness tells us now is that we are truly interdependent creatures and that we need each other.”
(Sources: Campaign To End Loneliness, Vivek Murthy, Age UK)