We need friends like we need food. But for many of us, finding and maintaining close connections has become increasingly difficult.
We all feel lonely at times. In fact, argued the late social psychologist John Cacioppo, an occasional feeling of loneliness can be healthy and productive if it spurs us on to build stronger social bonds.
But for some people, loneliness comes far too often. And it doesn’t just affect the socially isolated. Loneliness strikes those living in an unhappy relationship or even a house filled with people as much as it hits those who live alone. That’s because loneliness is a lack of authentic intimacy – a relationship or friendship with someone who cares whether you are sad, happy, worried or unwell.
In Australia, a Lifeline survey revealed that three out of five people say they often feel lonely, and more than 80 per cent of respondents believe society is becoming a lonelier place.
The health effects of loneliness
People who regularly feel lonely appear to be at higher risk of a range of medical problems. According to Cacioppo, loneliness sets in motion a variety of ‘slowly unfolding pathophysiological processes’, the net result of which is that the lonely experience higher levels of cumulative wear and tear. Their stress levels are higher, their blood pressure increases, their sleep is affected, and their immune system is compromised. All these things will increase the risk of disease, including Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
Last year, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness a “growing health epidemic” in a Harvard Business Review essay, citing a study that said social isolation is “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Depression and loneliness
There is a two-way relationship between depression and loneliness. People with untreated depression can become very lonely because depression can sap the vitality that friendships require.
And although depression doesn’t always lead to loneliness, feeling lonely is often a predictor of depression one year or even two years later, says Dr Louise Hawkley, research associate in the psychology department at the University of Chicago.
How to fight loneliness
Be realistic. “Loneliness is a mismatch between your ideal and what you actually have,” says Hawkley. Sometimes our expectations of friendships can be too high, or we can rely on someone too much. This can create a barrier to forming or consolidating a friendship. You can still have fun and light conversation with different people, whether or not they become close friends.
Just do something. If you want to change your feeling of loneliness, any small step you take – whether that’s striking up a conversation with someone at your local café, joining a local Meetup group or enrolling in a local community college – is a good move.
Walk a dog. “Pets, especially dogs, are protective against loneliness,” says Hawkley. Dogs get you out and about, they are naturally social, and you have a living being to care about. If you can’t or don’t own a dog, see if you can walk a neighbour’s dog, or volunteer to help at a dog shelter.
Meditate. Meditation has some powerful health effects. A meditation practice with a simple app such as Headspace or Calm can help you release some of the thoughts that could be keeping you feeling lonely and undermining your efforts to meet new people.
Get offline. Face-to-face or a chat on the phone is better for people than relying on social media relationships. If you haven’t spoken to someone in a while, pick up the phone or arrange to meet in person.
Volunteer. You may be feeling lonely right now, or know how it feels. Befriending someone who is lonely not only help others, it will help you too. There are organisations that assist elderly people, or you could make a point of visiting an older neighbour who is living alone. Visit govolunteer.com.au for opportunities in your area.
Explore counselling. Speaking to a mental health professional can help shake feelings of loneliness, isolation or symptoms of depression. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is an approach that’s been shown to help with depression and loneliness.
The benefit of small social interactions
Small, daily, face-to-face interactions can make a huge difference to our overall wellbeing and longevity, says Sydney psychologist Dr Tim Sharp, in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dr Sharp is founder of the Happiness Institute in Sydney, and an adjunct professor at the University of Technology Sydney, and RMIT University.
Taking an interest in other human beings, he says, regardless of their station in life or their use to us shows empathy, and is beneficial to our overall health.
“A lot of the conversation about mental health focuses on our relationships with family and close friends,” says Dr Sharp “but engaging with strangers and acquaintances – the brief, micro interactions we all have on a daily basis – can have amazing benefits as well, with reduced rates of depression.”
Interactions can include chatting to the person making your coffee or serving you at the grocery checkout, or regularly saying hello to your neighbours.
Studies show even a simple nod or smile at strangers in the street can make you both feel more connected.
This article was previously published in the Well at Work Newsletter