The Age of Loneliness

12 January 2016

Sue Bourne’s documentary, The Age of Loneliness, broadcast on the BBC last week shone a light on an issue that can no longer be ignored.

The UK is now one of the loneliest places to live in Europe. If we are serious about creating a happier and healthier society, the prevalence of loneliness must be recognised and reduced.

Loneliness is an issue we all wish we didn’t have to face. None of us wants to see how vulnerable we are to feeling totally alone. Bourne’s series of compassionate but sometimes painful interviews with individuals from all walks of life highlighted how diffuse the problem is.

The sadness in hearing people describe the acuteness of their isolation exposed how rare it is for loneliness to be spoken about openly. When one of the interviewees, Christine, aged 72, admitted she had offered her body for medical research to avoid having a funeral that nobody came to, I understood afresh the sense of shame related to loneliness.

But having the courage to share our feelings of loneliness is one of the biggest first steps we can take. It creates the opportunity for understanding and an invitation for others to be honest about their own experiences. Ironically, allowing others to see our vulnerability can be the route to finding deeper connections with others.

This is key as demographic and cultural factors, such as increased life expectancy and families living further apart have colluded to mean that loneliness is arguably more common in contemporary society than ever before. It is these factors that leave 7.6 million people in the UK living by themselves.

But loneliness is not just the experience for those who find themselves alone. Many of us have experienced loneliness in the context of a busy office or lively party. It is about quality of relationships, not just quantity. And we now know that loneliness has significant implications for our mental health.

Over five years ago, The Mental Health Foundation published a ground-breaking report, The Lonely Society, that linked modern ways of living to increasing loneliness. It also established a correlation between loneliness and the prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Our research showed that loneliness is also linked to higher levels of addiction to alcohol and makes it harder to control other behaviours that lead to health problems.

Of course it works both ways too. Those people living with mental health problems also have a higher risk from also being lonely. Verifying our own findings, a 75-year study that began in 1938 and followed 268 Harvard graduates has found that healthy relationships were the key indicator of overall life satisfaction.

That is why our work is more relevant today than ever. This May, during Mental Health Awareness Week, we will be focusing on the importance of healthy relationships to our mental health and well-being. We need to appreciate and understand how critical the connections we have to those around us are in sustaining good mental health – The Age of Loneliness served as another helpful step in reinforcing that message.