10 simple ways to help combat loneliness
As the poet Rupi Kaur wrote, “the irony of loneliness is we all feel it at the same time - together.” Very few of us can claim we haven’t had feelings of isolation at some point in our lives, or yearned for more or better relationships than we have. Bereavement, relocation, break ups, even certain periods of the year weighed down with social expectation - such as Christmas or long bank holiday weekends - can all cause one to feel disconnected.
And now, new research signals how urgent the conversation is to be had today. Last week, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy released an advisory urging society to treat loneliess as just as dangerous to someone’s health as drug abuse, and that those suffering ar at greater risk of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and heart disease. “Right now, millions of people are telling us through their stories and statistics that their tank is running on empty when it comes to social connection,” he said. “So bottom line is this has to be a public health priority that we consider on par with tobacco, with substance use disorders, with obesity and other issues that we know profoundly impacted people’s lives.”
In England, statistics show that we fare ‘better’ than our US counterparts with six percent (approximately 3 million people) saying they feel lonely often or always, while Campaign to End Loneliness found that Londoners in particular are more likely than others in the UK to be affected by severe forms of loneliness. Some 700,000 of them feel lonely ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’.
It’s far too easy to blame today’s endemic loneliness on the pandemic, when in reality lockdowns only illuminated an increasing trend of isolation which has been growing steadily for deacades. Technological advancements mean everyday activities from shopping to exercise classes are a mere click away and friendship communication can be maintained by sharing memes or commenting on a photo of someone’s cat on Instagram instead of simply picking up the phone.
Finding a community in an office or place of worship is also diminishing, More of us work from home (according to ONS’s most recent research around 40 percent of working adults reported having worked from home in the past seven days) and live secular lives than ever before (census findings from January 2023 shows that more than 50 percent of twentysomethings are not religious, compared with under 37 percent a decade earlier).
Dana Moinian, Pyschotherapist at The Soke explains that loneliness is so often misunderstood. “It’s more than just feeling unseen or unheard by those close to us, it can be a collective state of being unsupported by corporate workplaces, social communities or even political governments,” she says. But there are ways to alleviate loneliness - from volunteering or putting down your phone to understanding the difference between loneliness and solitude, here are some of the best.
Smile and say ‘good morning’. That’s where you start - even if you feel shy or grumpy or sad. “Micro-interventions - simply the act of being friendly, be it genuine or performed - can elevate our sense of connection and happiness,” says Moinian. “Little actions go a long way: putting the phone aside, active listening or doing something small for someone.”
We all know by now that we probably spend way too much time on our Smartphones – specifically social media platforms - but putting them down is easier said than done. So it bears repeating that subjecting ourselves to endless memos of other people’s full lives when ours feel empty is a fast track to misery. From Instagram reels of wild Ibizan villa holidays to pithy Twitter exchanges between clever colleagues – social media can be instantly isolating.
No matter how much you remind yourself it’s not the full story, if you feel lonely the worst thing you can do is spend time on a glossy social media site, consuming other people’s edited highlights.
Fictional worlds have long been the ultimate escape for bookworms but reading is also a remedy for loneliness.
A 2018 report by Demos and The Reading Agency found that reading or listening to an audio book can significantly reduce the feelings of loneliness and help to alleviate social isolation.
“Literature has a unique power to connect us to people and stories we might never have otherwise encountered,” Sue Wilkinson, CEO of The Reading Agency told The Evening Standard at the time. “Our research shows that reading enhances empathy and the ability to understand one’s own and others’ identities.”
Don’t wait to be invited to things – if you want connection, seek it out. Suggest meet ups, offer to host dinners or organise reunions. If an upcoming exhibition reminds you of an old friend, contact them and suggest you go together.
It can be intimidating to be the initiator especially if you feel a little lacking in confidence, but it’s also rewarding when people say ‘yes’ – which they will. And if you find yourself trying to connect with someone who seems uninterested in being pals, know when to bow out and put your efforts into someone who does value you.
Accept that other people are not always the answer
Feeling lonely in a crowd is peak bleak – but it’s not unusual. “A breakthrough for me was realising that some of my friendships made me feel lonely,” says Sophie*, 38. “I’d be sitting in a busy pub surrounded by people I’d known for years and just feel really alone - like my sense of humour had shifted or like we’d outgrown each other. I didn’t feel like myself with them anymore.”
It might sound counterintuitive but being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being around people who make you feel isolated is so much worse than passing the time by yourself. Pay close attention to how you feel around certain people. You’re aiming for relaxed and confident, otherwise solitude really is preferable.
With this in mind, it’s worth remembering that having a partner doesn’t make you immune to loneliness. Psychotherapist Ella McCrystal has numerous clients who have expressed feeling lonely even when they are in a relationship. “It most often means people don’t feel emotionally connected their partner or that their needs for intimacy, emotional support, or companionship are not being met,” she says. “Recognising and addressing feelings of loneliness within a relationship is the first step toward building a stronger emotional connection with a partner but also listening to your partner without judgement or interruption can help them feel heard and valued.”
Give new people a chance
Marina, 37, who moved out of London to a remote part of the English countryside just after lockdown admits she often felt lonely at first– particularly as her life in the capital was one filled with parties, lunches and a group of close friends all living within a stone’s throw of her flat.
“It sounds awful to say this but don’t measure new people by the same standards as your best friends,” she says. “I’ve found unexpected friendships with people who aren’t totally my kindred spirits – so my advice for anyone in a new place is don’t dismiss anyone too soon.”
Join the club
So many clichés exist because they are true – and the one about joining clubs to meet people is no exception. There is no better way to make connections with others than participating in a group activity. From painting classes to netball teams, choral groups to book clubs – getting together to focus on a shared interest is truly bonding.
Volunteering is a brilliant salve for loneliness because not only does it put you into contact with other people, it is also a chance to give back which in turn gives you a little altruistic buzz. From offering to shop for an elderly or disabled neighbour to helping children advance their literacy as with Schoolreaders, there are hundreds of opportunities out there to use your skills and experience to help others.
By the same token, Moinian champions the importance of a collective mindset to combat loneliness. “Invest time and energy into communities that are diverse, active, and tolerant,” she says. “As loneliness is intergenerational, it can be positive to reach out across generations [as there is] lots to learn from each other. There are plenty of examples of young professionals moving in with pensioners to ease the cost of living and combat loneliness.”
“Therapy can be fantastic for loneliness, it’s often the first step out of isolation,” says hypnotherapist Zoe Clews. “For those lacking a supportive partner, friends, family or community a therapist can be an emotional lifeline and a safe harbour. From this space you can begin to explore what has led to this - both psychologically and practically - and how to recover emotionally, build your confidence and move forward with practical steps to begin getting your very legitimate and human needs for connection met.”
It’s totally fine to enjoy being alone, too
This might seem like cold comfort but Oscar Wilde had the right idea when he wrote: “I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be defined by another person.”
While connection is of course essential, being able to not only tolerate but enjoy your own company is too.
Start small – pop into a café for a cup of coffee and try not to use your phone as a prop. Then graduate to the cinema or entire meals out alone.
This is what Katherine, 34, did after the end of a long-term relationship.
“I had done literally everything with another person for ten years,” she says. “When we broke up I thought I was terrified of being alone. But I wasn’t – I was just out of practise. Then I realised how freeing it was to not have to consult someone else about where to go out for dinner or whatever. Now I go on mini-breaks alone as I don’t want to have to accommodate anyone else’s needs! It’s bliss!”