No one likes to admit to being lonely – it’s a label which stigmatises us in the eyes of society. We all know the expression “Billy No-mates”, a negative term to describe someone who is a loner, or who seems to have no friends. Just think back to the school playground and the child who stands alone in the corner. No one wants to be that child, equally no one wants to be seen talking to them, because people might label them as well. Human beings are instinctively herd animals, because there is strength in numbers. The more there are of us, the less likely it is that we”re going to be picked on or attacked. So, we generally feel more comfortable and safe in the company of others.
I suppose I should say at this point, there is a difference between loneliness and being alone. After all, there may be times, when we appreciate time to ourselves and some people choose to live alone or in a remote place far from the noise and stress of modern life. Loneliness can be defined as a feeling of sadness, because one has no friends or company.
The subject of loneliness has been highlighted in the media over recent years, starting with the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which she set up following her appointment as MP in 2015. In January 2018, the Prime Minister appointed a Minister for Loneliness, in response to the findings of the Commission. So is Loneliness on the rise in the 21st century? Or has our definition of it changed over time?
Causes of Loneliness
Sometimes, loneliness can be a state of mind. We can be surrounded by people at work or home, or even when we are out socialising, but feel separate, an observer on the outside looking in. This can stem from childhood and if you’ve known intense loneliness as a child, it is often something that stays with you into your adult years.
Loneliness also seems to be a symptom of modern life, especially in western societies. It is widely acknowledged that the sense of community which people used to feel, has largely disappeared from many urban and rural areas. If you ask someone, how well they know their neighbours and when was the last time they saw or spoke to them, they would probably not be able to remember. Not only do people work longer hours, the population tends to be more mobile due to job relocation and relationship breakdown. Also, fewer people belong to local community groups or churches now.
However, both living arrangements and marital status are related to feeling lonely. According to a study published this year, by the Office for National Statistics, which looked at older people and loneliness, one in five (20 per cent) of those aged 52 and over who lived on their own reported being lonely often and an additional two in five (39 per cent) reported being lonely some of the time. Of course those who live on their own are more likely to be single, widowed, separated or divorced and a relatively high percentage of these groups report that they were lonely often or some of the time, with a particularly high percentage of those who were widowed (63 per cent). The percentage of those who reported poor health and being lonely some of the time or often (59 per cent) was nearly three times as much as those who reported excellent health and loneliness some of the time or often.
Bereavement and divorce are two of the most common factors associated with loneliness. If you have had a close relationship with someone for a number of years, it stands to reason that you will feel the loss when they are no longer around, quite acutely. Even if you did not always get on with them, you may still miss having someone else around the house. Companionship is important to most of us – that feeling of mutual affection, intimacy and friendship.
In the recent BBC survey on Loneliness, the largest of it’s kind ever conducted, the results showed that contrary to what we might expect, it was the 16-24 year old age group who acknowledged feeling the most lonely. This possibly links in with the top 5 reasons given for feeling lonely:
- having no-one to talk to
- feeling disconnected from the world
- feeling left out
- feeling misunderstood
Adolescents and young adults often struggle with low-self confidence, feel self-conscious when socialising and find it difficult to make conversation with people. As a result they may withdraw from social contact and feel quite lonely as a consequence. They are also finding their identity and separating from their parents/care-givers both physically and psychologically, which can result in feelings of isolation and disconnection with others.
However we look at this issue, it’s clear that it affects people of all ages, depending on what they are going through at any particular time in their lives.
So what can you do about feeling lonely?
- be pro-active in maintaining links with existing friends/family,
- search out new contacts by joining local groups,
- volunteer with charities in your local area,
- take up a new hobby
- Make contacts with groups/people who share your views and interests may also help you to feel less alone.
- If you like animals, then getting a cat or dog, will give you companionship at home.
- Join an on-line community such as Elefriends (Mind’s on-line peer support Face Book page)
- Start your own self-help group, if there isn’t a local one that fits your needs.
- Last but not least, don’t wait for others to connect with you. Be the one to make the first move. You may be pleasantly surprised.
You could also benefit from talking to a therapist, who will help you to explore feelings of depression, low mood, anxiety and stress, as well as focussing on strategies which may help you to overcome loneliness.
For those who are housebound through illness or disability, there is help out there:
- Many charities such as Age UK, offer befriending services both face-to-face and over the telephone.
- You can find a therapist who will come to your home to see you.