At some time or another we’ve all felt lonely. Usually it’s just temporary, but for some it can become chronic, with serious consequences for well-being and even health.
Loneliness has been in the news a lot recently, with the appointment of the world’s first minister for loneliness in the UK and the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, continuing the venture started by the British MP before she was murdered in 2016. For the first time loneliness is being openly discussed by policy makers as an issue that matters. It’s a topic that is undoubtedly getting higher profile at the moment, with some claiming that we are currently experiencing an epidemic. When you look at the figures from surveys on loneliness going back to 1948, the proportion of people experiencing chronic loneliness has remained steady for 70 years with 6-13% saying they feel lonely all or most of the time. But it is true that the total number of lonely people is on the rise, because there are more people in world. There is no doubt that loneliness is currently causing a great deal of misery.
One of the reasons that it is being taken more seriously now, is that research has demonstrated the impact it can have on physical as well as mental health. Chronic loneliness is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. But the causality is complex. We don’t know whether people are more likely to become ill because they feel lonely or become isolated as a result of their ill health?
Loneliness is a problem which doesn’t only affect older people. There is a peak during old age, but there’s another during adolescence. Yet because so much of the previous research has been conducted with older people, we don’t know whether the factors pushing younger people into loneliness are the same. There is a lack of large-scale research involving people of all ages, living in different parts of the world.
At any one time approximately 90% of people do not feel chronically lonely, but what we don’t know is why. What is allowing some people to feel more connected to others? We also know that many people feel too embarrassed admit to feeling lonely. There seems to be a stigma surrounding loneliness, but what we don’t know is whether negative stereotypes associated with loneliness might make people feel even lonelier.
To plug some of these gaps in our knowledge we’ve been working with psychologists from Manchester, Exeter and Brunel Universities to create an online survey called The Loneliness Experiment, with the aid of a grant from Wellcome Collection.
It is set to become the world’s largest survey on loneliness. With questions on friendship, trust and emotions, it does take about 40 minutes to complete, but completing it certainly made me think about my friendships and connections in a way that I hadn’t before.
We want to discover whether there are certain times of the day, month or year when loneliness is heightened and crucially, what can propel people out of loneliness. Does social media help or hinder? Does it leave us feeling more isolated if we see everyone else having fun or does it allow us to connect with like-minded people in a way that didn’t used to be possible?
Loneliness isn’t all bad. Some believe we’ve evolved to feel lonely sometimes in order to drive us to connect with other people, enhancing our chances of survival. So although it feels unpleasant, as long as it’s temporary it can be positive, prompting you to rediscover old friendships or meet some new people. The big question is why this temporary loneliness can then become chronic for some.
We would love as many people as possible over the age of 16 to take part, whether or not they feel lonely at the moment. We have been astounded at the response we’ve had so far, with many thousands of people from all over the world completing the survey. In the autumn, after the psychologists have analysed the data, I’ll be announcing our findings in a special edition of All in the Mind recorded at the Wellcome Collection in London and available to listen to as a podcast later.
The more people from around the globe who take part, the better picture we can get of loneliness in society today and how to tackle it in the future.
If you’d like to take part please go to www.thelonelinessexperiment.com or BBC Radio 4 website.