Loneliness has been described as a global epidemic impacting people’s physical and mental health. This epidemic began long before covid19 and its associated lockdowns, with Australian health data showing an increase in loneliness and social isolation since the early 2000s.
Last week I was a panellist at the Yarra Network Working Group, hosted by Hall & Wilcox, Melbourne. Our discussion topic was loneliness – what it is; how it impacts individuals and businesses; why we need to be concerned about it; and what we can do.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is a universal human experience that transcends age groups and societal boundaries. Psychologists Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo define loneliness as the distressing feeling that arises when an individual perceives that their social needs are not being met, either in terms of quantity or, more crucially, quality of social relationships. In essence, loneliness is a deeply personal experience, rooted in the subjective evaluation of one’s relationships compared to our desired level of connection.
While the antidote to loneliness is often seen as ‘more social interaction’, it’s not that simple. It is less about the quantity and more about the quality of our connections that truly matters. We’ve all likely encountered situations where we’re surrounded by people, yet an overwhelming sense of isolation prevails. This phenomenon underscores the significance of meaningful, fulfilling relationships in combating loneliness – and what is meaningful and fulfilling varies for each of us.
Why should we be concerned?
Several studies have shown that loneliness does not only lead to mental illness, including depression and anxiety, but it can also increase the risk of premature death, comparable to established risk factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, and obesity.
Governments across the world have recognized the gravity of loneliness as a public health concern. The British Government appointed its first Minister for Loneliness in 2018, and Japan followed suit in 2021, acknowledging the health impacts of rising loneliness rates. The United States Surgeon General proposed a National Framework in 2023 to rebuild social connection and community.
Our collective concern about loneliness stems largely from its impacts on individual well-being. However, loneliness doesn’t solely impact the lonely individual; it ripples through families, friendships, workplaces, communities, and nations. In families and friendships, it can lead to mental and physical health issues and create distance and rifts in relationships. In workplaces, loneliness contributes to productivity loss, increased illness-related costs, and a decline in positive and pro-social workplace behaviours.
One common misconception is that lonely individuals should simply reach out to family and friends to alleviate their loneliness. However, it’s not that straightforward. We must consider two critical aspects: the responsibility for addressing loneliness and the distinction between relationships and genuine connection.
Positive psychology, the science of well-being, revolves around the idea that “Other people matter,” as famously stated by one of its founding fathers, Professor Chris Peterson. Well-being is interconnected at various levels, affecting both individuals and the systems they inhabit. Human beings are inherently social creatures, evolving through cooperation, reliance on, and connection with one another in tribes, families, communities, and friendship circles. To combat high levels of loneliness, a collective effort is required to understand what cultivates higher-quality connections.
While we often understand loneliness as primarily relating to our perceptions of personal social relationships, a broader understanding of connection is emerging. Researchers such as Associate Professor Holli-Anne Passmore are investigating the importance of human connectedness to nature, indicating that most of us have an inherent need to connect with the natural world. Additionally, studies like Harvard’s Global Flourishing Study are exploring multiple factors contributing to human well-being including work, social and political environments. These research efforts provide insights into how individual and collective well-being can be enhanced.
Building quality connectedness
No one wants to admit to feeling lonely – I’m an Aussie 80s girl: even I remember that being a ‘Nigel No Mates’ was THE worst thing possible! However, National and global data suggests that most of us are feeling lonely – at the very least, some of the time – and for more than a third of us, regularly.
The antidote to loneliness is not merely being around more people, but fostering quality connections. We intuitively recognize the characteristics of quality connections, whether it’s a parent or partner making us feel loved and secure, a friend genuinely celebrating and sharing in our achievements, or a barista who knows and greets us by name.
Conversely, most of us have experienced the emptiness of crowded gatherings where no one truly connects – either out of a sense of distance that’s come about from years of disconnection or things unsaid, or simply because everyone’s got their phones out recording the birthday party rather than actually celebrating it.
There is no magic number of friends or close family members that we need to have – it differs individually and by our dispositions. Some people need lots of people around them, others feel connected and satisfied with one or two close confidants. The same goes for frequency, there is no recommended ‘dose’, but if we examine our own habits and experiences over our lifetime, we can get a sense of what works best for us.
We also need to be mindful of comparison: social media allows us to see the highlight reels from everyone’s lives. The ‘Girl Gang’ weekends away or dinner parties – that we weren’t invited to. The party where everyone looks thick as thieves – but we were too anxious to go and now the missing out is more painful than the anxiety that kept us away in the first place. Social media provides some good opportunities for connection – especially for older people – but social media and chat groups can also skew our understanding of and feelings about what social connection looks like.
What can we do for ourselves and others?
Building quality connections and reducing loneliness begins with small steps. If you do have friends or family who you love and care for, reach out to them. Especially reach out to those who you find energising. Make the effort to engage in meaningful, face-to-face interactions, as these connections tend to be more profound. Relationships take time, energy and effort.
Also: be a person who brings energy to your valued relationships – research into building connection shows that happiness comes from focussing less on ourselves and more on others.
Consider rekindling relationships that have faded over time. Relationships can be complex, and sometimes, they drift apart for various reasons. If there’s someone you genuinely miss and wish to reconnect with, take the initiative to reach out.
For those experiencing greater isolation, explore new avenues to connect with others. In the UK, doctors prescribe social activities based on individual interests, including book clubs, volunteering, men’s sheds, writing groups, and sporting clubs. The key is to try something new and commit to it. We may not come away with a gang of friends – but you also never know…
When we suspect that a friend is lonely, it’s essential to approach the situation with sensitivity given the stigma loneliness often carries. Reach out, listen, offer choices and options for catching up, and encourage professional help if necessary.
Counteracting loneliness calls for a collaborative effort, recognizing that our connections profoundly impact not only our individual lives but also the communities, workplaces and societies we inhabit. By nurturing quality connections, we can work towards a world where loneliness becomes a better-understood and more manageable aspect of the human experience.
Some further reading
- Australian Government information on social isolation and loneliness
- A five year review of Britain’s Ministry for Loneliness
- How Japan is combatting social isolation:
- US Surgeon General on America’s loneliness epidemic
- John Cacioppo (2023), The lethality of loneliness, at TEDxDesMoines
- Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of behavioral medicine, 40(2), 218-227.
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
- Jarden, A. (2015). Introducing Workplace Wellbeing to Organizations: The “Me, We, Us” Model. Positive Work and Organizations: Research and Practice, December(1),
- Williams, S. E., & Braun, B. (2019). Loneliness and social isolation-a private problem, a public issue. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 111(1), 7-14.
- Waldinger, R., & Schulz, M. M. (2023). The Good Life: lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. Éditions Leduc.
- Waldinger, R., (2015). The Good Life: lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. https://youtu.be/8KkKuTCFvzI?si=PiqsCWYUAKbR3AyF. TedxBeaconStreet.
- Waldinger, R., (Jan 2023). The Good Life: lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness: expanded. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IStsehNAOL8 TED