We are making progress as a society – you can’t deny that. What was once taboo is now mainstream, all the way from tattoos to menstrual cups. However, some things continue to carry a heavy social stigma, making it all but impossible to discuss out loud. One of those things is loneliness; a problem that is affecting a significant part of the population but which remains very much unspoken about.
Loneliness was often thought of as something experienced by only heartbroken women (the kind that grace the screens of modern rom-coms) or, on the other end of the spectrum, the elderly who had outlived their peers and had no family to care for them. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that not only is the condition prevalent amongst a wider percentage of the population and a more diverse demographic than previously thought, but that the issue is actually chronic.
And it is indeed an issue that should be looked at – and should be treated as – a genuine health condition. Loneliness has been linked to everything from increased stress levels and inflammation to heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. Combined with outcomes that are more commonly associated with it – like depression and suicidal thoughts or attempts – and you end up with something that is said to be deadlier than obesity.
Other than threatening your life, loneliness also threatens your livelihood. It does that by hindering an individual’s ability to progress in areas such as career, finances, relationships, and personal growth. Indeed, apart from its physical and mental ramifications, loneliness also has a financial impact. According to research from the London School of Economics, the cost of loneliness can be estimated at GBP 6,000 per person, encompassing health costs as well as pressure on other local services.
In the age of JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out), it’s important to differentiate loneliness from social isolation. If having fewer social connections or spending less time with other people is a happily-made choice, it doesn’t necessarily denote loneliness. In fact, in many ways, it can actually indicate another form of modern social empowerment. In contrast, loneliness isn’t a choice; it can be defined as a lack of affection, closeness, and, social interaction for an individual who does crave or does desire things. As such, having plenty of friends that you don’t feel are “real”, for instance, or around whom you can’t be yourself, can result in feelings of loneliness. Being in a relationship where you don’t feel supported or where the affection and care feels one-sided is also another form of loneliness.
With more people living alone than ever before, and with communication being transferred to texting apps and social media, our opportunities for quality, meaningful, flesh-and-blood connections are dwindling.
A look at the most recent figures on loneliness reveals a frightening truth: aside from the elderly, it is today’s youth that suffers from loneliness the most. And, according to new research, this could lead to major setbacks in the rest of their lives. So what gives?
While you may argue that adolescence has always been an age during which people tend to feel misunderstood, finding it harder to belong and experience feelings of genuine companionship and fulfillment, the popularity of social media has had a tremendous impact on this generation, leaving them unable to create the sort of true, social bonds that happen when you’re not behind your phone. The subsequent rise in “comparison culture” and increasingly felt need for many people to “keep up with the Joneses” (or influencers, in this case) is also affecting the young.
That being said, while the young and the elderly make up most of the population suffering from loneliness, those of us caught in the middle aren’t free from it either. In fact, in a study conducted a few years ago, researchers from Brigham Young University dubbed loneliness the next big public-health issue. They argued that, with more people living alone than ever before, and with communication being transferred to texting apps and social media, our opportunities for quality, meaningful, flesh-and-blood connections are dwindling. And since it’s so taboo (or simply embarrassing) for people to admit that they’re lonely, it’s a problem that’s largely going untreated and ignored. So how do we beat it?
If you’re the one suffering from loneliness, the first thing you need to do is acknowledge your need for connection. It’s okay to feel lonely sometimes, and accepting when, where, and how we tend to feel lonely is essential to understanding how to replace that with feelings of fulfillment, contentment, and joy, even when we’re alone. Experts have recommended taking up a new hobby or volunteering for a good cause (which can help not only keep you busy but increase your sense of fulfillment and joy), or taking up some outdoor activities such as gardening, running, or outdoor sports. The time spent in nature will give you a mental and emotional boost, while the endorphins will give you a physical and neurological one – and you might also meet like-minded people with whom you can form real connections.
If you’re the one suffering from loneliness, the first thing you need to do is acknowledge your need for connection.
Learning to love yourself and your solo time can also help. Take yourself on a date by going to the cinema or enjoying a meal in your favorite restaurant. Not having anyone to go with means that you can pick the movie that you want with no compromise, or that you can enjoy your meal over a great book. Even if it may feel strange at first, doing it repeatedly can help you learn to embrace and love it as quality time spent with yourself. Signing up for classes involving team activities – such as group art, dance, drama class, or team sports – will naturally expose you to great groups of people that can help to meet that need for social connection. Spending time with animals – whether that’s adopting a rescue animal to give it a forever home or volunteering with an animal rescue organization – can also help provide you with a feeling of unconditional love and companionship. Journaling and becoming involved in or taking up new creative pursuits have also been shown to have a positive impact on people suffering with loneliness.
If you suspect that someone you know may be dealing with this, reach out. It’s often the simplest of gestures that has the greatest effect. When you’re with that person, really focus on spending time with them. Put your phone on silent and resist the urge to pick it up and scroll mindlessly during any pauses or silence, however awkward that may be at first. Don’t ever make them feel like a “charity case” for your attention. Send them a message just to say hello. When you make plans with them, be sure to show up and commit, and don’t cancel on them or consistently bail. If you have a family, invite them over for a family dinner – and make them feel so welcome that they feel like they’re part of it. Ask if they want to come with you to run an errand or for a workout class. Introduce them to some of your other friends, or casually suggest great books or new activities that they might enjoy. The goal here isn’t just to dedicate time to them so that they’re not spending so much time physically alone, but rather to help them rediscover self-love and fulfillment.