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The Loneliness Epidemic and Ways Forward

The World Health Organisation recently named loneliness a global health concern. Much of the existing body of research paints a clear picture on the long-term impacts it can have on our physical health including increased risk of heart disease, dementia, poor immune function, depression and anxiety just to name a few. One study found the impacts of loneliness being equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes or drinking six alcoholic drinks per day.

The flip side of the research paints a picture just as clear on the long-term impacts of connection. We live longer, it increases our self-esteem, improves our sleep and immune system, we recover from trauma and illness quicker, and of course we report feeling more satisfied. There's so much more and the literature could not make it any clearer how important connection and our relationships are. It's in our relationships where we feel accepted, valued and understood which can be profoundly healing in a way that many medications and Big Pharma just can't replace. If there was a way to package and market connection as a consumer product, you'd bet it'd be a billion dollar industry.

Amplified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, the sharp rise of technology and the siloing of online spaces has left us feeling lonelier than ever. With all the Zooms, online classes and anything you want delivered to your door, many of us can go days or weeks even without being touched by another human, even something as simple and pure as a casual hand on your shoulder. Online spaces often give us the illusion of social contact through content consumption and mental stimulation - except the human body is meant to touch and be touched. In the research, this touch starvation or skin hunger has been connected to depression, stress, insecurity, lower self-esteem, sleeping issues, all the bad things. I touch on skin hunger in another blog post, which you can read more about here.

On top of this, we often aren't taught how to create and maintain good relationships of any form. I learnt Pythagoras Theorem, but I was never taught how to support a grieving friend. I learnt how to analyse Shakespeare, but I was never taught how to be a good listener. I learnt about putting Mentos into a Diet Coke bottle, but I was never taught that ongoing relationships require work.

Loneliness is defined as the feeling of isolation we experience when our relationships are not the way we would like, whether that's in terms of depth, frequency or quantity. A response I often see in sessions and have been guilty of myself is rushing to find a romantic relationship to distract from the loneliness, or enduring a bad relationship because it's "better than feeling lonely". For folks more avoidant, they might make themselves really busy with work or hobbies.

Loneliness shouldn't be framed as a scary feeling to avoid. If we listen to it, it pushes and calls us to reach out and connect. We can often feel guilt or shame around needing other people, but we aren't designed to do this alone. That's a truth about being human, and what a glorious one it is. What better or bigger purpose is there for us than to be in relationship with our people.

Priya Parker once said, "when we gather, we create worlds." I highly recommend their work if this kind of discourse is something that you're interested in.

Practical tips to build deeper connections that aren't just "start a new hobby group":

  • Practice asking deeper or different questions (question card sets are also great for this - my favourites are Where Should We Begin? and We're Not Really Strangers)

  • Tell your people what you learn from them/admire about them and be specific

  • Create new reasons to gather and to celebrate, like a divorce dinner or parenthood party

  • Challenge traditional scripts about how gatherings should go (for example, dessert first or hosting a themed night)

  • Set aside time every day to reach out to people you love

  • When interacting with people, give them your full attention

  • Share your stories and practice taking up the space

  • Practice asking for physical touch that you want

  • Practice offering physical touch

  • Make an effort to connect with others in public spaces, like fellow commuters or at parks

  • Create intentional experiences with your people

  • Create new rituals together or subvert old ones

  • Find ways to serve others, like volunteering or offering to make food or carpool

  • Attend regular social groups, like walking, trivia, hobbies (had to include it)


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