Despite the world's population growing rapidly, many of us feel lonelier than ever. The drive to connect with others and forge meaningful social relationships is an essential part of what makes us human. From a neurobiological perspective, we are wired for connection.
However, as a 2016 survey by Lifeline Australia revealed, more than 80 per cent of us think the world is becoming a lonelier place. If you're familiar with the experience of feeling alone even while surrounded by people, you probably won't be surprised to learn that of the 60 per cent of respondents who said they 'often feel lonely', a large cohort lived with a partner and/or children. Loneliness doesn't discriminate – and even though technology has arguably made us more connected than ever, we also feel more alone and hungrier for meaningful connection.
It's important to note that loneliness means different things to different people. Some think of it as sadness because one has no friends or company; others believe it's a subjective indicator of feeling alone. Either way, it suggests a discrepancy between one's desired level of connection and one's actual level of connection.
The likelihood of feeling lonely is sadly higher for those living with complex mental illness. This is due in in no small part to the stigma associated with mental ill health and an all-too-common lack of access to adequate care and support. For those who live with a mental illness, it can be hard to leave home regularly let alone foster caring, real-world relationships. Physical ill health and disability can also feed loneliness.
So what can you do?
Our social lives aren't the only place we experience loneliness so if you feel lonely at work or at home, here are some ideas of things you can do to overcome loneliness and combat social isolation.
- Get outside most days. Go for a walk, do your grocery shopping, or sit in a park where people go to walk their dogs. If you work fulltime, make sure you're getting a spot of fresh air in your lunch break – even if it simply involves walking around the block. While you may not feel like you're connecting with anyone, just being in a public place can help alleviate feelings of isolation.
- Be proactive in relationships. When we're feeling alone or depressed, it's easy to believe that no one cares and feel nothing but self-pity and self-loathing. It can be demoralising thinking that you're invisible or act differently to other people. But try to make a conscious effort to check in with family and friends instead of waiting for them to take the lead. Start simply: send a text to a friend out of nowhere. Arrange a time and place to have coffee or dinner without a reason. Show that you are ready to care and connect. If they don't call you, call them.
- Volunteer for a charity or cause. Volunteering can be heaps of fun as well as a valuable way to give back to and get involved with your local community. If you find the idea too intimidating, check out what your local library, community centre or TAFE has to offer in terms of free activities and community events. Being part of a group of people all focused on the same task or activity (with no pressure to perform in a professional capacity) can help you find a sense of purpose and belonging. Entering a new social situation can be tricky at the best of times so go easy on yourself when it comes to striking up conversations. Remember, you're unlikely to be the only person in the group who feels a bit like a fish out of water.
- Join an online community. The internet gets a bad rap for making people more isolated and disconnected – but for those of us who aren't born extroverts, it can be a lot less intimidating to connect to others online than in the real world. Make sure the online community you pick caters to your emotional needs and doesn't involve scrolling through spam messages, marketing hype and unrealistic images. Focus on finding an open space that speaks to your values, interests and experiences. Consider how you can harness it for the good of your emotional world. Then go forth and engage. If you value privacy, the SANE Forums are safe, anonymous and moderated 24/7 by mental health professionals.
- Read a book. Reading begins as a solo activity but becomes a shared one if you join a book club or attend a literary festival or event. It can also be a source of great comfort and solace in lonely times – books require readers to make an imaginative leap of feeling in order to empathise with the characters contained within. Reading also has the power to deepen and enrich your understanding of the world. Studies have shown that it can even alleviate loneliness by mimicking the effects of socializing with a group . Think of it as a true act of self-care.
- Be yourself. It's a cliché, but it's one that exists for a reason. Many people hide parts of themselves that they think aren't socially acceptable or don't tell friends how they're really feeling because they fear being rejected, undermined or judged. The problem is that when we connect with people in a way that isn't fully authentic, it can exacerbate loneliness instead of easing it. Know that it's okay to make your needs known in friendships and that it's okay not to 'suit' or 'fit' every group and situation. Forget about the idea that who you 'really' are isn't good enough or likeable.
- Call a 24/7 helpline. If you are going through a personal crisis or feeling unbearably lonely, help is available. No one should have to shoulder their problems alone. A recent Harvard university study found that loneliness and social isolation has the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and leads to an increased risk of stroke, mental health, risk of dementia and suicide. Take your mental and physical welfare seriously and call a national telephone crisis support services to talk to someone if you need to. Remember, what you're feeling is real, and most people experience loneliness at some stage. It doesn't mean there is anything wrong with you.
Useful links and services ...
- Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14 (24 hours / 7 days a week)
- beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 (24 hours / 7 days a week)
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 (24 hours / 7 days a week)
- Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24 hours / 7 days a week)
- MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78 (24 hours / 7 days a week)
- SANE Australia Helpline: 1800 187 263 (10am-10pm AEST / Monday to Friday)
For more information about loneliness, depression and social isolation, visit SANE's Facts + Guides for concise information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatments available.