Loneliness is a public health crisis. And one that's getting worse. It's a crisis facing individuals, so it's often invisible, yet pervasive - in organisations, at home, among the young and elderly, advantaged and disadvantaged. What can we do about loneliness? Here are some suggestions.
In Paulo Coelho's book 'Eleven Minutes', loneliness is the worst of all tortures, the worst of all sufferings.
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being alone can be good in small doses, but loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions, with disastrous results for our collective well-being. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
Culturally, we've become so focused on our own lives that we don't give consideration to those who are lonely and would really like to hear from us. People who are lonely aren't necessarily the hardcore lonely. It can be anyone.
Not surprising, then, that building community and fellowship is becoming a huge driver - as shown by the explosion in conferences, dating services, cruise trips, organised travel, theme parks, groups for women in business, breakfast meetings, community forums. Humans really do like to be together. We need each other! Yet, for all the new tools like Meetup.com and dating sites, most people do not live their lives around face-to-face groups anymore.
Social media can give an illusion of connectedness. We need more real physical contact and communication and inter-relationship face to face. Yes, we're out of practice and need to learn how to do it all over again, value it, prioritise it. Reaching out to your community is a bit like entering the school playground for the first time - all relationships are possible, everything is up for grabs. Yet, as adults, we are adept at creating boundaries - effective screens that protect us but actually divide us if we rely on them for everything.
Technology isn't the problem - it has so many applications for whether you're introverted or extroverted (social media). The motivation to help deal with loneliness is far more personal. We can all learn to understand the importance of reaching out to others and then do something about it. And it doesn't have to be much.
In our work, we're aware of loneliness at many levels. We encourage our staff and our clients to recognise it and reach out. There are some very simple ways:
- Look for opportunities in the community and get involved in outreach.
- Work one night a month at the local homeless shelter.
- Help with an event at a school.
- Volunteer to help with the local hospital fundraiser.
- Call your mother.
You get the drift. It's not that tough to do. It's a win/win - the value of reaching out is just as valuable to you the giver as it is to those who get the benefit of you. Looking for an issue to deliver social value? Consider loneliness.