Can people be medicine for the lonely?

Rising levels of loneliness are harming our health. Sadly, there’s no magic bullet for this modern malady.

Illustration by Olivia Baenziger

Illustration by Olivia Baenziger

Loneliness hurts. The feeling of isolation is a growing problem in many developed countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But loneliness is not unusual by any means; it is a normal human experience. In fact, it is baked into our DNA because humans are innately social.

So why have we only recently started treating loneliness as a problem? One possible reason is that there is now robust evidence indicating the extent to which loneliness is detrimental for health. Additionally, there are rapid changes in the way we communicate, commute, live, and work with each other.

Risk factors for loneliness such as living alone, working from home, and reliance on digital communication are increasing. In fact, we now know that loneliness can afflict even those who are strongly embedded within societal structures, such as young people living in urban areas. Similarly, those who are employed and interact with others on a daily basis can also be vulnerable to loneliness.

Despite being ultra-connected through social media, young urban-dwelling people are suffering from loneliness at increasing levels.   Roberto Trombetta/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Despite being ultra-connected through social media, young urban-dwelling people are suffering from loneliness at increasing levels. Roberto Trombetta/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Loneliness is stressful on both the mind and body. It increases the odds of an earlier death by 26% — similar to the odds when living alone. A person who perceives themselves as having minimised access to relationships also finds physical and mental tasks more difficult. These individuals can’t rely on group safety or share the load of life’s challenges, and this compromises their ability to regulate stress. It is no wonder that loneliness is associated with multiple physical health disorders, from poorer cardiovascular health to increased blood pressure to sleep issues.

One in four Australians report problematic levels of loneliness, as revealed in research conducted by my team at Swinburne University in conjunction with the the Australian Psychological Society. The Australia Loneliness Report shows that loneliness affects all genders and ages, although those over 65 report less loneliness than all other age groups.

The research highlights the impact of loneliness on Australians’ mental health. Lonely Australians, when compared with their less lonely counterparts, report higher social anxiety and depression, poorer psychological health, lower quality of life, and fewer meaningful relationships and social interactions. Loneliness increases a person’s odds of future depression by 15% and social anxiety symptoms by 13%. This fits with previous research, including a study of more than 1,000 Americans which found lonelier people reported more severe social anxiety, depression and paranoia when followed up after three months.

The symptoms aren’t just psychological: Australians with problematic levels of loneliness are more likely to have more headaches, stomach problems, and physical pain than those who are less lonely. This is not surprising as loneliness is associated with increased inflammatory responses

Beyond health, loneliness affects aspects of broader society such as businesses — although we don’t yet know exactly to what extent. Addressing loneliness in the workplace is an emerging and important area of research. We know that workplace loneliness can influence unsatisfactory work relationships, employee’s intention to leave, poorer performance, and work stress.

Lonely people tend to have more headaches, stomach problems and physical pain.   kizzzbeth/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Lonely people tend to have more headaches, stomach problems and physical pain. kizzzbeth/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Loneliness is a signal for connection, akin to signals of thirst for us to drink, and hunger for us to eat. For this reason, we cannot hold an ultimate goal of eliminating loneliness. We can, however, address problematic and persistent loneliness.

Unfortunately, many lonely people do not necessarily identify themselves as lonely for fear of being seen as weak or vulnerable. For lonely individuals with social anxiety, simple solutions such as joining a group or seeing a therapist can seem insurmountable. Lonely people who try to seek human connection through our health and community services may be directed to inappropriate services or solutions they feel are not right for them.

Perhaps the solution is to encourage the development of meaningful relationships in the communities we live in and the workplaces we are embedded in. Loneliness has traditionally been addressed via informal methods within our social groups — that is our families, friends, and neighbourhoods. But systemic issues in our environment may not allow us to make meaningful relationships all the time. For example, you might feel cautious about making small talk in the office tea room for fear of being seen as wasting time due to a specific work culture.  

Policies that shape the way we interact with each other within educational, health, social and workplace settings can help combat loneliness in a formalised way. For example, policies and guidelines that promote workplace relationships may encourage some who are unsure of how to connect. Formal approaches — like the public health campaign in the UK — can help show the benefits of educating people in our community. The question here is whether these formalised approaches should address the increasing inability to connect meaningfully with others in traditional ways.

 
With changes in the way we work and communicate, we may need to implement formal policies to combat workplace loneliness.    12019/Pixabay    ( CC0)

With changes in the way we work and communicate, we may need to implement formal policies to combat workplace loneliness. 12019/Pixabay (CC0)

 

On an individual level, how can the non-lonely (ie, less lonely) individual make a difference to those who are lonelier? People who are informed and skilled in helping the lonely can open and facilitate interactions — especially if lonely individuals are unable to initiate these themselves. But for many, there is a lack of understanding of how to help people who are lonely.

The first hurdle may be misconceptions of loneliness. The non-lonely individual may feel helpless or burdened. But helping a lonely individual may not feel as difficult or burdensome if we are well-informed and well-resourced.

Promoting prosocial behaviours, small talk or acts of kindness are the first steps to helping a lonely person. While there is a need to make an effort, helping need not cost money or take much time. Non-lonely individuals should also offer acts of kindness without favour expectations.

Lonely people may have already attempted to reach out and been rejected because the request to connect came across as too ‘soft’ or non-direct. Others may have been dismissed for variety of reasons, from time constraints to assessing the lack of importance in this interaction. But lonely people should not be disheartened, and remember that brief conversations change over time. Seemingly superficial conversations can deepen and feel satisfying for both parties.

 
Helping a lonely person can seem tricky  —  but it can start with a simple conversation.   jamesoladujoye/Pixabay  (CC0)

Helping a lonely person can seem tricky but it can start with a simple conversation. jamesoladujoye/Pixabay (CC0)

 

Although meaningful interactions between people may underpin the antidote to loneliness, we also require an additional push from formalised solutions such as public campaigns and policy changes. However, research in loneliness — especially data specific to Australians — is lacking. We are at risk of rolling out untested, ineffective, and, worst of all, potentially harmful solutions to the lonely. Understanding the complexity of loneliness is crucial to the development of effective solutions.

In the meantime, an act of kindness, a smile, or a simple hello can open doors to a lonely individual. So what’s stopping you?

Edited by Ellen Rykers and Sumudu Narayana.