Loneliness Epidemic

Posted: 2017-12-28
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: social psychology loneliness how to cope with loneliness dialogue of generations

How to cope with loneliness?

Several decades ago scientists studying dietary habits predicted that an epidemic of obesity was coming. That epidemic has arrived.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization and loneliness is one of the most common emotions that millions of people experience. Have you had the experience of feeling lonely, like there is no one around and no one to talk to? Loneliness and social isolation are increasing sharply worldwide and it has become  a growing health epidemic. Recent global researches suggest between 40 - 60 % of current middle-class jobs won't exist in 10 years' time due to robotics, artificial intelligence and other new technologies. That's a lot of people potentially disconnected from society, and vulnerable to loneliness and isolation.

Loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact has been growing and will continue to grow, according to recent researches. It is predicted that loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless preventive action is taken.

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Studies in the United Kingdom have found loneliness to be an even greater concern among young people than the elderly. People can feel lonely even when they are surrounded by other people. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, millennials are in the throes of an unspoken epidemic of loneliness because social media is keeping us from connecting with each other in real life. People now have many social media “friends” but these do not compensate for real friends one meets face to face. It is estimated that you need three to five close friends in order to derive the optimal health benefit, but even one good friend can have a big effect.

People can experience loneliness for many reasons and many life events may cause it, for example, a lack of friendship relations during childhood and adolescence, or the physical absence of meaningful people around a person. Researches have found that loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in marriages, relationships, families and those with successful careers.

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Some intersting findings about loneliness and social isolation from different researches done in the United Kingdom:

● 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month.

● Over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone.

● Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company.

● 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report, feeling lonely some of the time or often.

● 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health.

There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.There is a growing evidence base around the complex challenge of loneliness. Researches show that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to people health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death and loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.

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Loneliness can be described as the gap a person feels between the quality and quantity of social interactions they have compared with the interactions they would like or expect. Loneliness has been found to be a much bigger risk factor for depression than social isolation. Indeed, the researchers found that lonely people were much more likely to report symptoms of depression than people who were social isolated.
Loneliness may represent a dysfunction of communication, and can also result from places with low population densities in which there are comparatively few people to interact with. Loneliness can also be seen as a social phenomenon, capable of spreading like a disease. When one person in a group begins to feel lonely, this feeling can spread to others, increasing everybody's risk for feelings of loneliness.

 

Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience.

 

Loneliness can lead to excessive drinking, smoking or  eating to suppress those unpleasant feelings. It can lead to depression and rumination, as you dwell on the question, “Why am I alone?” It can also lead to hopelessness.

The existentialist school of thought views loneliness as the essence of being human. Each human being comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate person, and ultimately dies alone. Coping with this, accepting it, and learning how to direct our own lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition.

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Being lonely makes people judge their friendships and relationships more negatively and respond to others more defensively and even with greater hostility—which can push people away and sabotage opportunities for closeness and meaningful interaction. Thus, these behaviors can set us up for being both more socially isolated and more depressed.

Is there a gene for loneliness? A recent study in the United Kingdom investigated the role of genetics in how people experience loneliness, social isolation and depression. Researchers confirmed these assumptions. The data showed significant indications of genetic correlations between loneliness, social isolation and depression. Researchers concluded that while not all people who are socially isolated are lonely, those who do experience loneliness are often depressed as well because of this similar genetic influence. While a specific ‘loneliness gene’ has not been isolated, the findings do reinforce those of other studies that have also found genetic predispositions to loneliness.

There are different ways to tackle loneliness.

● Identify the reasons why you feel lonely.

In order to make changes that will truly help you, you will need to take some time to figure out why you are feeling lonely. Consider some of the following questions to help you determine why you are feeling lonely: When do you feel the most lonely? Do certain people make you feel more lonely when you are around them? How long have you been feeling this way? What does feeling lonely make you want to do?

● Track your thoughts and feelings.

You can start by writing about how you are feeling or what you are thinking, or you can use a prompt. Some prompts you might use include: “I feel lonely when…” “I feel lonely because…” When did you first start feeling lonely? How long have you felt this way?  Choose a comfortable place and plan to devote about 20 minutes per day to writing.

● Practice meditation.

Some research has suggested that meditation may ease feelings associated with loneliness and depression. Meditation is also a great way to get more in touch with your feelings of loneliness and start to understand where they come from.

● Talk to a therapist.

It may be hard to figure out why you feel lonely and how to move past those feelings.Talking to a therapist can help you understand what is going on and decide on the best course of action. Feeling lonely may indicate that you are depressed or that you have another underlying mental health condition.

● Realize that you are not alone.

Loneliness is a normal part of being human, but it can make you feel like you are abnormal. Reach out to a friend or family member and talk with that person about how you are feeling. This process of reaching out and sharing with someone will help you to see that you are not alone.

● Move forward.

Instead of persistently dwelling on how alone you feel, do things to get your mind off of your loneliness. Take a walk, ride your bike or read a book. Explore activities and hobbies, and don't be afraid to try new things. Keep yourself busy.  Do sports. Working out and taking care of your body is usually the first thing that gets tossed aside when you get busy.

● Be socially active.
 
Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need -- crucial to both well-being and survival. To make new friends, you will have to get out and get involved in things. Look for activities that interest you and that also involve groups of people like book clubs, church groups, concerts and art exhibitions.

● Take the initiative in social relationships.

Don't wait for people to approach you: you should approach them. Ask the person if they want to chat or get a coffee. You must always show interest in other people before they will show interest in you. Be yourself as you try to make new friends. If someone tells you that they feel lonely, despite seeming to have lots of friends and social contact, talk to them about why they feel like this and listen to their feelings and concerns. Help them feel that someone cares and wants to understand.

● Spend time with your family.

Working to deepen the relationships with your family may also help you to stop feeling so lonely. Even if you don't have a great history with a family member, you can still try to repair relationships.

● Discover your creative side.

Why are the arts so effective at tackling loneliness? The arts are intrinsically worthwhile. Not everyone will wish to be involved in the arts. But many people will take some interest in the arts and for some people they can be uniquely enjoyable and meaningful. The arts give joy to our lives and beauty to our environments and produce many other benefits to individuals and to society in general, especially though improved mental and physical health.

● Have a pet.

You might not notice it, but when you pet your dog or cat, your body releases oxytocin, a stress-reducing hormone associated with emotional bonding. Pets provide companionship, which means that they can help their owners—particularly those who live by themselves—feel less lonely. Having a pet you can take for walks outdoors is great for your relationships, and can help foster your interpersonal skills. The most important thing about  pets is that they give you unconditional love.

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Social relationships are fundamental to our thriving. Periods of time spent alone can be rewarding. Being on your own gives you a chance to do something that you enjoy or really interests you. The fact that loneliness feels so uncomfortable is a reminder to pay attention to and nurture these relationships that can further your happiness.

Once we understand the profound human and economic costs of loneliness, we must determine whose responsibility it is to address the problem. To solve this global epidemic  requires the engagement of institutions where people spend their time: families, schools, social organizations and the workplace to building tolerant, harmonious, inclusive, resilient and supportive neighbourhoods and communities that bring people together through their common interests, not differences.

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Sintija Bernava
International Program Director, Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’ (Latvia)
Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’ is the only  organisation from Latvia holding Special Consultative Status of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations

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