Loneliness refers to a mismatch between the types of relationships that we want to have versus the ones that we perceive that we actually have. Loneliness is on the rise, particularly in the West, with Japan being the exception where the loneliness epidemic is a serious issue. The most effective coping strategies have involved talking therapies that help individuals to reconsider their relationships more positively. Furthermore, dialogue on the subject of how we cope with loneliness is increasingly important, because it can help us to reach out in positive ways and cope ‘consciously’, rather than “reach for the bottle”, smoke, binge watch Netflix or dwell in feelings of sadness.
Everyone one of us knows what it feels like to be lonely. In the 1960s The Beatles were already singing “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?” This song, written before the rise of social media, brought attention to the rise in loneliness that has become a feature of modern society. But what is loneliness and what does research tell us about how to cope with it?
Psychologists have defined loneliness as the unpleasant feelings that arise when people experience either a lack of satisfaction in their relationships or a mismatch between the quality of the relationships that desired and those that they currently have. Emotional loneliness refers to a perceived lack of emotional connection in relationships, as compared to social loneliness which is the perceived lack of a social network. In Western countries, as many as 1 in four people have been found to regularly experience loneliness. In Japan “kodokushi” or “lonely death” or the phenomenon of old people dying alone without anyone even noticing was coined in the 1980s. What it means to be lonely is different for everyone. An individual may have a small circle of contacts and not experience loneliness. Equally, someone else may have an expansive social network but still feel lonely. Within society, loneliness is taboo, coming out about feelings of loneliness in public is a recent phenomenon and public dialogue on the subject is still constrained by social pressures.
One promising theory to explain loneliness is that our need to relationships is linked to our human need to belong. As argued in the ‘belongingness hypothesis’ that ‘‘human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships”. If loneliness is part of the human experience, why should we worry about it? Loneliness is a problem because it increases the likelihood of poor mental and physical health, particularly in older age. Feeling lonely, at any age, can contribute to an increased risk for depression, high blood pressure, disrupted sleep, weakened immune system and suicide besides causing various neurological, endocrinological and cardiovascular complications.
Spending time with other people reduces the risk of loneliness. Some mental health charities suggest joining social groups or activities or joining social networks, such as Facebook or Meetup.com. Whilst suggestions to socialise can be helpful, simply upping socialising will not reduce loneliness for everyone. For some, addressing the negative feelings associated with being alone requires support to change thinking and beliefs. There have been a number of psychological initiatives that help to change individuals’ thoughts and feelings towards their relationships. These reappraisal strategies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have been found to be more effective at reducing loneliness than socialising. In these settings individuals can identify any beliefs that are unrealistic and explore them, to experience more satisfaction.
To cure loneliness it is not enough to “add relationships and stir” instead some deeper work on the self may be required. Being married decreases loneliness but only if an individual feels able to confide in their spouse, so clearly it is the quality — not just the presence — of the relationship that matters.
In addition to our own selves, our environments can influence loneliness. Human centred design that involves communities in planning and social policy can actively promote social connection. The Mayor of Vancouver introduced block parties as a strategy against loneliness.
Finally, dialogue about loneliness, what it means to each of us and ways of coping matters. Some coping strategies for loneliness can start off positively such as cooking, shopping and watching Netflix and become “out of control” leading to binge eating, physical inactivity, overspending and alcoholism. Thus, consciously being aware of when we are coping with loneliness can help us to manage it, and has the potential to lead to happier and healthier lives.