17 April 2015

And the feeling is most acute among young people, new research by The Big Lunch reveals.

A family all at home in different rooms on their phones.

New research by The Big Lunch, an initiative led by the Eden Project and made possible by the Big Lottery Fund, has found that social interaction is declining in the UK and contributing to a rise in loneliness. A nationwide survey carried out by Opinium in early April 2015* found that:

  • 68% of adults in the UK say they feel lonely either often, always or sometimes. This is most acute among 18 to 34-year-olds, with 83% of this age group experiencing loneliness.

  • More than a third (38%) of respondents now have less interaction with people they know than they did five years ago and 16% only interact socially with others once a week or less.

The Big Lunch, the UK’s annual get-together for neighbours, has been working with Dr Rebecca Harris, a psychologist at the University of Bolton, to assess the changing face of social interaction in the UK. To help those who may be vulnerable to loneliness, it is calling on people across the UK to host a Big Lunch for their neighbours in June.

The research reveals that UK adults spend only 3% of their time (48 minutes a day) engaging in social interaction and, in a typical week, interact with only six friends, family members or neighbours — be it a face-to-face conversation, a phone call or chatting online. On average, women spend 10 minutes longer interacting socially each day than men.

Over a quarter (28%) of respondents wish they had more friends but a third (33%) admit they find it harder to make new friends than they did 10 years ago, with one in 10 (11%) of this group saying they do not know how to start friendships any more.

While the impact that loneliness has on older people has been widely acknowledged, The Big Lunch survey reveals that many younger people are also lonely. 16% of 18 to 34-year-olds comment that they always feel lonely but around half (48%) of people aged 55+ say they never feel lonely. More than two in five (43%) of 18 to 34-year-olds wish they had more friends and 15% of young people who say they find it harder to make friends nowadays are 'too scared' to talk to people they do not know.

As a result of the survey, The Big Lunch and Dr Harris have created ‘The Four Personalities of Social Interaction’ which enables people to self-identify how much social interaction they may need and help them find opportunities to connect with others. Based on the survey, the majority of UK adults have a small number of close friends, making them ‘Casual Confidants’ or ‘Long-Term Investors’, while the rest of the population are either ‘Self-Assured Soloists’ who are happiest alone or ‘Social Butterflies’ with many connections.

Dr Rebecca Harris of the University of Bolton comments: 'The findings show that we’re spending less time having social interaction than we used to, we have fewer friends than we’d like and we’re finding it harder to make new friends. This decline in social contact could be contributing to the rise of loneliness in the UK. Loneliness is far more complicated than people imagine. It’s often seen as a one-dimensional state, either ‘lonely’ or ‘not lonely’ and that just isn’t the case. It can be a temporary state, but when prolonged, it’s a serious issue. Research shows that our brains treat loneliness in the same way as physical pain and it has been associated with poor mental and physical health, so it’s important that people take steps to overcome loneliness.'

Sir Tim Smit KBE, Executive Vice Chairman & Co-Founder of the Eden Project and The Big Lunch, says, 'With three in five people in our survey admitting that more social interaction would help them to feel less lonely, The Big Lunch is even more important in 2015 than it was when we launched it six years ago. In the tens of thousands of neighbourhoods around the UK where Big Lunches have taken place, people often comment how it has helped to build community spirit and make their street a happier and less lonely place. This year, we’d like to see at least one in 10 people across the UK get involved in The Big Lunch in June so that they too can experience all the benefits.'

Commenting on the research, Dame Esther Rantzen DBE, Founder of ChildLine and The Silver Line helplines, says, 'Loneliness has become an epidemic in the UK. This survey highlights how loneliness affects both young people and the older generation, while other research shows that it can contribute to depression and other serious risks to health. Having received more than 400,000 calls since The Silver Line launched in 2013, most callers tell us they literally have nobody else to talk to. As one caller told us, “When I put the phone down, I feel like I’ve joined the human race”. The Big Lunch gives us all the chance to reach out to our neighbours and have fun together — that may lead to new friendships and the feeling that we are all, whatever our age, part of the same human race.'

*Opinium Research carried out the online survey of 2,437 UK adults aged 18+ from 2 to 8 April 2015. Results have been weighted to nationally representative criteria. ‘Social interaction’ includes face-to-face, telephone and online communications with friends, family and neighbours (excluding colleagues).

For more information, case studies, interviews or images, please contact:

Eden Project Communities Press Office: 0203 058 2427

Get Involved

All this research means that there is an even more important reason to get involved with hosting a Big Lunch! You could help bring people in your neighbourhood closer together for The Big Lunch in June!

Our brains treat loneliness in the same way as physical pain and it has been associated with poor mental and physical health, so it’s important that people take steps to overcome loneliness.