Loneliness, another BBC Article.

Loneliness has been called a modern epidemic. But is it really getting worse?A

At some point in our lives, the chances are that you and I will feel lonely. It’s a problem that’s getting a lot of coverage at the moment. The UK even has a new Minister for Loneliness charged with working across government departments to address the issue. It’s an important topic and one that causes a lot of misery, but there are plenty of myths surrounding it. Here are five of the biggest.

1)    Loneliness is all about isolation

Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. Loneliness is a feeling of disconnection. It’s the sense that no-one around you really understands you and that you don’t have the kind of meaningful connections you would like. Isolation can be a factor, but it’s not the only one. You can feel lonely in a crowd, just as you can feel perfectly happy, even relieved, to spend some time alone. When the BBC conducted the Rest Test in 2016, the top five most popular restful activities all were ones that tend to be done alone. Sometimes we want to be alone. But if we don’t have the option to spend time with people who understand us, that’s when loneliness strikes.

2)    There’s an epidemic of loneliness at the moment

Loneliness is undoubtedly getting a higher profile, but that doesn’t mean that a higher percentage of people feel lonely now compared to a few years ago. Using studies going back to 1948, Christina Victor from Brunel University has shown that the proportion of older 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 actual numbers of lonely people are rising simply because there are more people in the world. So there is no doubt that loneliness is causing a lot of sadness.  

3)    Loneliness is always bad

Loneliness hurts. But the good news is that it’s often temporary – and shouldn’t be seen as entirely negative. Instead, it can be the signal to us to look for new friends or to find a way of improving our existing relationships.

The social neuroscientist John Cacioppo argues that we’ve evolved to experience loneliness in order to prompt us to maintain our connections with other people. He likens it to thirst. If you are thirsty you look for water. If you are lonely you look for other people. For many thousands of years humans have stayed safe by living in co-operative groups, so it makes sense to have a survival mechanism which drives us to connect with others.   

Although loneliness is usually temporary, it is true that when it becomes chronic the consequences can be serious. There is good evidence that it can lower our well-being, affect the quality of our sleep, and lead to sadness. It can also result in a vicious cycle in which people feel so lonely that they withdraw from social situations, which in turn makes them feel even lonelier. Research has shown that if a person feels lonely, their risk of experiencing depressive symptoms a year later is higher.

4)    Loneliness leads to ill health

This one is a bit more complicated. You often see statistics quoted on the effect that loneliness can have on our health. Reviews of the research have found that it could increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by almost a third and that lonely people have higher blood pressure and a lower life expectancy.

These are serious outcomes, but many of the studies are cross-sectional, taking a snapshot in time, so we can’t be certain of the causality. It is possible that unhappily isolated people are more likely to become ill. But it could also happen the other way around. People could become isolated and lonely because they already have poor health, which stops them from socialising. Or lonely people may show up in the statistics as less healthy because their loneliness has robbed them of the motivation to look after their health. And of course it needn’t be a case of it happening in one direction or the other. It could work both ways.    

5)    Most older people are lonely

Loneliness is more common in old age than in other adults, but in her review of loneliness across the lifespan Pamela Qualter from the University of Manchester found there is also a peak in adolescence. Meanwhile, studies show that 50-60% of older people are not often lonely.

There is still plenty we don’t know about loneliness. That is why we want to fill in some of those gaps in the scientific literature with the BBC Loneliness Experiment, devised by psychologists from Manchester, Brunel and Exeter Universities in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection. We want people the world over to fill in the survey, whether they’re young or old, lonely or not. The aim is to discover more about friendship, trust and the solutions to loneliness that really work, so that more people can feel connected.

Take the survey here: www.thelonelinessexperiment.com   

DisclaimerAll content within this column is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. The BBC is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of this site. The BBC is not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of the sites. Always consult your own GP if you’re in any way concerned about your health.

Take the survey here: www.thelonelinessexperiment.com   

Loneliness, a BBC article.

1. Younger people feel lonelier than older people

When you picture someone who’s lonely, the stereotype is often an older person who lives alone and hardly sees anyone. Indeed, in the BBC Loneliness Experiment, 27% of over 75s said they often or very often feel lonely. This is higher than in some surveys, but because the survey was online we had a self-selecting sample and might have attracted more people who feel lonely.

Yet the differences between age groups are striking. Levels of loneliness were actually highest among 16-24 year olds, with 40% saying they often or very often feel lonely.

This begs the question of why so many young people say they feel lonely. Perhaps they are more prepared to admit to feelings of loneliness than older people who might feel they need to stress their independence. But it was noticeable that when everyone was asked at which point in their life they’d felt lonely, even retrospectively the most common answer people gave was when they were young adults.

So it’s not necessarily modern life that’s making young people feel lonelier, but factors associated with being young itself. Although we might think of the ages of 16-24 as a time of new freedom to have fun, leaving school and having more control over your life, it’s also a time of transition – moving away from home, starting college, starting a new job – all of which take you away from the friends you’ve grown up with. At the same time people are trying to work out who they are and where they fit into the world.

In addition to this, people aren’t accustomed to these feelings of loneliness and haven’t yet had the experience to know that they often pass, or to the chance to find ways to cope with those feelings, such as distracting themselves or looking for company.  

2. 41% of people think loneliness can be positive

This finding fits in with the ideas of people such as the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who believed that we evolved to experience loneliness because it can be useful, even though it’s so unpleasant. Humans have survived through forming co-operative groups. If people feel they are excluded from a group then feelings of loneliness might drive them to connect with people, finding new friends or rekindling old relationships.

The problem is that it can become chronic, with a serious impact on well-being and maybe even on health. This animation, which we published at the start of the project, explains more:

Feelings of chronic loneliness are associated with an increased risk of depression a year later. It was striking that in the survey, although 41% of all the participants said loneliness could be positive, this rate dropped to 31% in those who told us they often feel lonely. Loneliness can be so miserable and distressing, that when it’s long-lasting it can be hard to see any positive side.   

3. People who feel lonely have social skills that are no better or worse than average

Sometimes it’s assumed that people feel lonely because they’ve found it hard to make friends and help with improving social skills would make a difference. This isn’t what we found. A key element of social interaction is the ability to tell what other people are feeling, so that you can adjust your responses accordingly. Perhaps they’re worried about something or you’ve accidentally offended them.

One way of measuring this skill is to give people a series of full faces or even just pairs of eyes to assess how good they are at working out which emotion people are experiencing. There was no difference between the average scores of the people who often felt lonely and the people who didn’t.  There were differences in scores on neuroticism, so perhaps it’s the anxiety provoked by social situations that can make them harder to cope with if you feel lonely, rather than social skills.

4. Winter is no lonelier than any other time of year

In the run-up to Christmas, you often see campaigns from charities who help the elderly featuring picture of isolated old people. It’s a day of the year that’s all about gathering with your loved ones to celebrate, so the idea of facing the day alone is something a lot of people would dread. British comedian Sarah Millican runs a very successful #joinin campaign on Twitter on Christmas Day so that people who feel lonely can chat to each other. And if you live in the northern hemisphere then Christmas also falls in the middle of winter when days are shortest and people stay in more, leaving you even more isolated if you feel lonely.

But we found that for many who feel lonely, winter is no worse than any other time of year. We asked people to tell us the time of year and the time of day when they felt loneliest. More than two thirds of people said winter was no lonelier than any other time of year. The minority of people who did say one particular time of year is lonelier chose winter, but a few even chose summer. At Christmas, many people go to great lengths to ensure that everyone is included, inviting friends over if they know they might be alone. But in summer if everyone else goes on holiday, you might be the one feeling left behind. So perhaps we should start wondering whether other people might be lonely all year round, instead of just at Christmas.  

5. People who often feel lonely have higher levels of empathy than everyone else

In the survey two kinds of empathy were measured. One was empathy for people’s physical pain – how sorry you feel for someone who has accidentally slammed their hand in a door, picked up a scalding frying pan or been stung by a wasp. The other was how much empathy you have for other people’s social pain – for someone who’s been bullied at school, not invited to a party or dumped by their partner.  

There was no difference in empathy for physical pain between the people who felt more or less lonely. But the people who said they often or very often felt lonely scored higher on average for empathy for social pain. Maybe because they have experienced for themselves what it feels like to be left out, they empathise more with other people who find themselves in the same situation.