addressing the epidemic of loneliness

An Optimist's Guide To Tackling Loneliness : Addressing the Epidemic of Loneliness

The most common undercurrent in my therapy space is loneliness. Client after client seems to echo the same feeling. They might not necessarily put it that way but the more I get to know them, the more I can sense it. It feels like we are all experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. 

I believe that loneliness is a critical emotion which deserves serious attention.

Extensive research highlights its detrimental effects on mental and physical health, increasing risks of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Now, most of us experienced this first hand in the pandemic where we were all forced to isolate. There is a reason why isolation chambers are the most severe form of punishment in prison. 

There's also evidence that loneliness can be deadly. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues conducted an extensive meta-analysis involving over 100 studies on longevity and social connections. Their remarkable findings revealed that individuals with robust social bonds had a staggering 50% lower risk of mortality during a specific period compared to those with fewer social connections. That’s really scary, isn’t it?

Yet, it doesn’t seem that we quite get it. 

We usually assume that friendships materialise effortlessly without actively seeking opportunities to connect. And that, reader, is our biggest fallacy. 

The troubling fact here is that we take active steps to hide that we are lonely. It seems that there is a sense that if you admit you are lonely, that somehow you are not likeable. And if you keep something a secret, shame builds up around it which further makes it difficult to share and connect with others. That doesn’t sound like a win-win situation for any of us.

Oftentimes, people think they can’t be lonely if they have a family, friends, colleagues, a partner and/or other people in their lives. The truth is that you can still feel lonely. Merely having people in your life isn’t enough, connection and social relationships are complex and depend on multiple factors like the quality of undivided time you spend and the kind of bonds you share with  people. 

Sometime last year, I had an ankle injury and one of the things I had to actively work on was improving my muscle strength. I noticed that there was so much information regarding diet, exercise, sleep  and how it could all help. In fact, my fitness app told me that I needed 30 minutes of exercise a day to stay healthy. 

But sadly, no one tells you what your targets for social connections to stay healthy should be despite the impact of loneliness on our wellbeing. Why is that?

Research suggests that just like we need a balanced proportion of fruits and vegetables in our diet to keep healthy, we also need a variety of social interactions to stay healthy and avoid loneliness. Some of those can be shallow and fleeting, others need to be deeper and enduring. In his book ‘Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection In a Sometimes Lonely World’, Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy explains that there are three types of loneliness: 

  • Collective loneliness: Occurs when we lack a sense of belonging to a shared identity or common group  such as a bond with fellow alumni or people in a fandom.
  • Relational loneliness: Lacking meaningful friendships and social bonds. People who you can participate in shared activities with, like outings, vacations, or simply spending time together, such as playing a game or watching a movie.
  • Intimate loneliness: It stems from the absence of a close confidant with whom we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings. It involves building mutual trust and a profound understanding of one another. To achieve a truly comprehensive sense of connection, all three dimensions of loneliness need to be paid attention and worked on. 

So, now that we know that loneliness is damaging and complex, here is what we can do to actually tackle it.  

  • Collective Loneliness: Identify your passions and interests, and seek out groups, clubs, volunteering or online communities that revolve around those topics to actually meet people who share your interest. For example: if you are passionate about a good cause don’t just sit in your room and give money to it… go out and try volunteering! You’ll never know where you can make a friend unless you try.
  • Relational loneliness:  The fallacy lies in expecting friends to effortlessly fall into our lives. Adult Friendship… doesn’t work like that. Research shows that considering friendship as luck-based, not effort-based, leads to more loneliness. Making friends requires initiative and intentionality. To build meaningful connections: 1) Assume people like you, 2) Embrace discomfort in meeting new people, and 3) Engage in connecting behaviours, not avoidance behaviours. For example: you show up at a house party but spend the entire time looking at your phone rather than introducing yourself and talking to people, you join a yoga class but hop off as soon as class ends without even saying hi to anybody. These are all avoidance behaviours. Overcoming avoidance is crucial to initiate friendships.
  • Intimate loneliness: Contrary to popular belief, charm and intelligence don't guarantee close friendships. Research shows that forming deep connections is about making others feel valued, which is best achieved through voluntary vulnerability. Sharing personal struggles and seeking help fosters trust and positive perceptions. People worry about being a burden, but revealing your true self creates meaningful connections, as we all have our imperfections. Being a "beautiful mess" allows others to relate and builds profound bonds. Vulnerability strengthens friendships more than we realise.

So, stop reading this blog, go out there and take the initiative to dispel loneliness. 

You’ll only thank me later!

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Zahra Diwan

Zahra has over 4 years of experience working with clients within the therapeutic framework. She works extensively with young adults, and maintains a diary on Things That Help Us which is collation of insights she gains in therapy.

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