Over the past decade, we’ve seen a rise in the profile of a new health epidemic, loneliness. Ever increasingly, research, reports, TV and radio programmes are focussing on loneliness: today sees the release of the second programme of BBC Radio Four’s series, The Anatomy of Loneliness, and also the fourth annual Campaign to End Loneliness Conference.
Loneliness is a complex issue which, in many ways, continues to throw up more questions than answers. It’s a mismatch between the relationships you have and those that you want; an internal trigger to seek the company you need, like the feeling of hunger which tells us it’s time to seek food. Chronic loneliness—when we ignore that internal cue—is detrimental not only to individuals but to communities and society as a whole, too.
Professor Sabina Brennan from Trinity College Dublin explains, ‘from an evolutionary perspective, this [loneliness and isolation] increases vulnerability and the body responds by being on a heightened and constant state of alertness for self-preservation. This is signified by heightened activity in the visual cortex of the brain, fragmented sleep patterns (as a lone organism is more vulnerable to attack) and interestingly, reduced activity in the area of the brain responsible for empathy.’
That said, new research from the BBC Loneliness Experiment produced contradictory findings. A survey conducted by Claudia Hammond showed that ‘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’.
So, what does this mean? Do lonely people empathise better with others who are also lonely? When we are experiencing loneliness, is there a tipping point beyond which we lost the ability to empathise? Or is it the case that social isolation inevitably causes us to lose our ability to empathise? We’ve all experienced it, we know instinctively—and now academically—that it has a detrimental impact, but can we actually say anything definitive about loneliness and its impact which is the same for everyone?
Perhaps, what is actually at play here is nothing new, but the nature vs. nurture debate. As humans, we are influenced by our evolutional responses, our environment, experiences and our relationships. Just as everyone’s upbringing and personalities differ, so too are their experiences of loneliness complex, and unique to them.
What we do know is that we can alleviate loneliness—our own or others—by reaching out and connecting, and by protecting and developing relationships that matter to us. It is the only way we can truly challenge chronic loneliness in the long term and it can be done so simply – by sharing time, food, chat and fun with those around us.
We love how the Rural Coffee Caravan brings people together and helps them to access useful services, how The Friendly Bench team are helping people to connect with each other and with nature in shared public spaces, and how Jan used Nextdoor, a social platform for neighbourhoods, to set up a social club for her community. These ideas started small but have had a huge impact in many communities, proving that small steps really do make a big difference.
And it's really important for all of us. Our research on the value of connected communities shows that neighbourliness helps us feel happier and healthier as well as delivering substantial economic benefits to UK society. So, what are you waiting for? Even a small action like taking the time to say hello to a neighbour today could really lift someones spirits (and yours), and be the highlight of their day.
Want to know more?
The BBC Loneliness Experiment has come up with nine ways to feel less lonely, and there are plenty of books on the subject, such as Nick Duerden's 'A Life Less Lonely' and Kate Leaver's 'The Friendship Cure'.