Dr. T. Jock Murray
and Janet Murray
“All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?”
— Eleanor Rigby, by Paul McCartney
When former prime minister Theresa May of Great Britain appointed a Minister of Loneliness, she said it was recognizing one of the greatest public health challenges of our age. If you consider that nine million Britons suffer from a treatable condition that has serious physical, mental and social effects, and limits life expectancy, it makes sense that they are taking loneliness seriously. It is likely that five million Canadians suffer with the same problem.
What is loneliness?
Feeling lonely is the emotional feeling that one is isolated and not receiving the connectedness with others that they desire. It is a subjective and personal feeling. You can be lonely and surrounded by people, or alone and not feel lonely. It is a feeling of distress or isolation when you feel a gap in your desire for social connection and your actual experience of it. Social loneliness is feeling you lack a social network or friends you can rely on. Emotional loneliness is a lack of deep attachment to people around you. Reactive loneliness happens because circumstances affect the person, like the death of a partner, family moving away, or lock-down due to COVID-19. Essential loneliness is related to the person’s personality, and they feel they are not appreciated, and feel incompetent to change things. They become angrier and suspicions, and this tends to drive people away, confirming their feelings and worsening their loneliness.
In years past, a person was born, grew up, married and died in the same village, town or rural community. Now you may grow up on a farm or in a small town, then leave for university or for a job, in a city thousands of miles away. You lose the connections which supported you, the house with the neighbours you’ve known all your life, and you trade these things for a high rise studio flat or a one bedroom apartment. For some people that’s exciting, the start of a new life, but for others it’s frightening, painful, and terribly lonely. It’s natural to feel that way in the early days of separation from the familiar, but it’s not natural to let the pangs of loneliness take over your life. Later in life, family move away, friends pass away and life around you changes. Increasingly your world shrinks, and you may feel more alone. Everyone’s experience is different but there are life trends that are increasing a sense of loneliness.
Studies of loneliness
Years ago, loneliness seemed to be of interest to writers and poets, who didn’t always differentiate being alone from loneliness, or the more mystical experience of solitude. In recent decades there has been an interest in loneliness as a serious social and medical problem. Because it is a subjective feeling, we need an accurate way to diagnose and measure it. Most studies over the last 40 years have used the 20 item UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is a validated and reliable way to assess the degree of loneliness.
The stereotypical image of a lonely person is an elderly woman sitting alone looking out the window. We now know that married individuals, movie stars, successful entrepreneurs, public personalities and world leaders can feel lonely. A recent BBC Loneliness Experiment, the largest such study, assessed 55,000 people and found loneliness was more common in young people, age 16 to 24, (40 per cent) than in the over 75 group (27 per cent). Previous studies showed an even lower rate of loneliness in the elderly, in the range of 12-15 per cent.
Prevalence studies are complex, as different cultures have different rates. In English speaking countries the number of people who say they are often lonely is about 15 per cent, but in China and South Africa it is 3-10 per cent. Loneliness is more common in men in middle age, but more common in women in older age.
Young people probably feel more loneliness because they are in a period of transformation, with a lot of change and disruption in their lives. The social structure of family, school and friends is suddenly topsy-turvy just at a time they are trying to find who they are and what their place should be in the world. Feeling lonely is a new experience for them. Suicide is higher and increasing in this age group. An interesting finding in the British loneliness study was that the quantity, the number of friends, was important to younger people, but for the elderly it was the quality of the relationships.
Why is loneliness
becoming more common?
In the past century, English speaking countries, led by the ideals of the American way of life, have moved more towards a culture with an individualistic emphasis, rather than a collective, family and community-based culture. A culture centered on the individual (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) carries with it the risk of loneliness for the person who feels they are not recognized, succeeding, or valued in a competitive world based on the individual. Students from Asian countries, which are more collectivistic in nature, often feel lonely when they move to study in and individualistic and competitive environment such as the American universities.
Loneliness and health
Loneliness can affect a person’s health, and chronic loneliness in later life is linked to a higher rate of depression, heart disease, diabetes, and the development of dementia. Changes in hormonal levels in the chronic stress of loneliness can also affect immunity. Those with chronic loneliness have higher rates of obesity, hypertension and elevated cholesterol, but most importantly, an increased mortality, probably from a combination of these factors.
Loneliness in COVID-19
One of the serious side effects of isolation required by the COVID-19 pandemic has been loneliness, touched by fear and coloured by anger. “We’re all in this together” did not resonate with those who just felt alone. Sometimes the comments on Facebook were painful to read… “When can I see my mother?” or “When can I go home?” were more than questions… they were cries for help. There was such a sense of loss, and we all ask the same question when bad things happen, “When will this be over?”
Dealing with loneliness
How do we deal with loneliness? First, we face it. There is no perfect answer for everyone, but there are things we can do — talk with someone early in the day for instance, to begin the day on an upbeat note. Don’t ruminate, think about things you can do for others — volunteer at the church soup kitchen, pick up groceries for the seniors in the neighbourhood.
People are less lonely if they have a hobby or activities that make them happy. Regular meetings with friends for coffee, or community activities or book clubs are helpful. A pet is often helpful. The computer is helpful if used to make connections, rather than to passively surf the internet. Most important, if efforts to overcome feelings of loneliness by reaching out are not successful, seek professional help. Seeking help may be embarrassing, but there are things worse than embarrassment. Remember that this is one time you are not alone. Many people are experiencing the same thing.
Many of us are not experiencing loneliness — we have the ability to reach out and connect with those who are. It’s not difficult — a phone call, a letter, an e-mail — any effort to make a personal connection. It is a responsibility we have to others, to offer a helping hand and a kind voice. Loneliness is a problem for 15 per cent of our citizens. The solution lies in the remaining 85 per cent of us to reach out and make the connection. We are all in this together.
Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.