Is Loneliness Killing You?
"I'm falling apart right in front of your eyes, but you don't even see me."
Good relationships not only keep us happier, they also keep us healthier. Loneliness, on the other hand, results in a decrease in brain function, a decline in health and a shorter lifespan.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development
The above statements are not made up - they are the conclusions of The Harvard Study of Adult Development, an ongoing study following the development and ageing of 724 men since 1938.
One of the original aims of this study was to identify what predicts healthy ageing and so for the last 81 years its participants have had regular medical checks as well as interviews and assessments. The most interesting conclusion has been drawn - at midlife it is not a person's cholesterol levels or other biomarkers that predict longevity, it is in fact whether or not they are satisfied in their relationships.
People who have good relationships have an increased chance of a longer and healthier life!
This study is still continuing and now includes the offspring of the initial participants. If you're interested, you can hear more about it in Robert Waldinger's TED talk here >
Waldinger's talk embedded itself in my mind many years ago and I have always focused on the importance of relationships and their impact on our health. However, now that I am an immigrant in a new country, I am suddenly so much more aware of what it means to be alone and of how difficult it can be to overcome this feeling.
Ironically, I am not alone. According to recent research, loneliness is fast becoming a major public health issue.
If you are feeling lonely, you are not alone
- An article published in The Guardian last year highlights how "more than one-fifth of Australians rarely or never feel they have someone to talk to or turn to for help, and more than one quarter feel lonely for at least three days every week."
- A 2018 Cigna survey of more than 20,000 adults in the U.S. concluded that nearly half of adult Americans report 'sometimes or always feeling alone or left out'.
- Also in 2018, a BBC British survey of 55,000 people, aptly entitled The Loneliness Experiment, draws our attention to the fact that we need to take loneliness seriously.
Pamela Qualter who led The Loneliness Experiment and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester concluded:
"Findings suggest that we need to be kinder to ourselves when we feel disconnected from others, but also that there is a whole toolkit of potential solutions that we can try."
How to overcome loneliness
I like those last words - "there is a whole toolkit of potential solutions" to loneliness!
In The Loneliness Experiment the BBC asked the 55,000 participants for their suggestions as to how to overcome loneliness. Here are their ideas (with my comments) - you might like them or you might not but they are definitely worth a thought:
- Invite people to do things without fearing rejection. Don't be afraid to ask people to join you for a meal, a walk or a movie. If they are busy they will say no, but you never know - maybe they are feeling lonely too.
- Carry on and wait for the feeling to pass. A little mantra that gets me through a lot in life is the common phrase "and this too shall pass".
- Take time to think why you feel lonely. It's ok to feel lonely - it's something we all feel - but if you feel lonely a lot, then take a step back and consider your life from an 'outsider's point of view'. Are you perhaps making yourself lonely by spending too much time at home, at work, on the internet or your phone? Do you think maybe you need to push yourself more and make a bit of an effort to socialise or spend time with people you already know? Most importantly, how much time and effort are you putting into the relationships you already have?
- Look for the good in every person you meet.
- Talk to friends or family about how you feel.
- Start a conversation with someone.
- Change your thinking to make it more positive. Here's a two minute exercise you can do the next time you are feeling lonely. Think of one person who means a lot to you - someone you really like and trust. Now think of 5 reasons why you like them and for each of those reasons picture an experience you have shared with them. Maybe some fun you have had together or a deep conversation you have shared. Close your eyes and enjoy those memories. I bet you don't feel so alone anymore do you :-) You can take this exercise one step further and reach out to that person - give them a call or send them a message.
- Join a social club or take up a social activity. Seek out people with similar interests to you. Have you always wanted to learn to paint? Maybe now is the time to join a painting class. Do you play tennis? Then join the local tennis club. Love reading? Find a book club. Love running? Join your local Saturday morning park run.
- Find a distracting activity. Occupy yourself with a new hobby or challenge yourself by learning something new.
The following two 'tools' didn't come up in The Loneliness Experiment, but I think they are invaluable:
- Join a support group. Loneliness is common amongst people struggling with chronic illness or pain. Poor health can isolate you because you do not have the ability or energy to take part in social or community-based interactions. So try joining a support-group for your condition. It always helps to know you are not alone in your condition and to talk to someone who 'knows what it feels like'.
- Volunteer work. There are so many people and causes out there in need of a helping hand. Giving a bit of your time and energy to other people can really help you connect with like-minded people and also give you a sense of belonging and a purpose.
If you are alone, feeling isolated or left out, then start with whichever 'tool' you can find. The important thing is to have a 'sense of purpose' or a strategy to overcome your loneliness.
"Loneliness is not lack of company, loneliness is lack of purpose."
Can loneliness be a positive experience?
The British Loneliness Experiment also included in their results the following point that I think is really important to consider: 41% of people think loneliness can sometimes be a positive experience.
“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”
Hafiz of Persia
You may be wondering how on earth loneliness can be a positive experience but, as my yoga teacher says when I feel I am stretched to my limits, "find peace in the space".
I drive my kids mad with a similar phrase when they tell me they are bored: "it's good for you to be bored because it wakes up your imagination" (and yes, they do roll their eyes when I say that). So maybe a bit of loneliness is good for us because it gives us time to get to know ourselves.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Image: Andrew Neel @pexels.com