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Loneliness; staying connected in a virtual world

Tuesday, May 10 2022
Written By: Mel Crate
  Loneliness is a feeling of sadness that can accompany being alone, without a social network, or feeling like you don’t ‘fit in’ to any social group. If prolonged, it can be a prominent risk factor for mental illness. When the pandemic hit, staying connected to others became more of a challenge. And although restrictions […]

 

Loneliness is a feeling of sadness that can accompany being alone, without a social network, or feeling like you don’t ‘fit in’ to any social group. If prolonged, it can be a prominent risk factor for mental illness.

When the pandemic hit, staying connected to others became more of a challenge. And although restrictions have now been lifted, the societies we live in and how we socialise within them has changed. Remote- or hybrid- working is commonplace, social gatherings remain less frequent, and virtual meetings are now the primary way we communicate at work.

But loneliness is not just a pandemic problem, nor is it a problem that only the elderly experience (as is commonly thought). In 2018, over 55,000 people took part in the BBC Loneliness Survey, co-developed by Brunel University London, The University of Manchester, and the University of Exeter. 40% of the survey's respondents aged 16-24 reported feeling lonely often or very often.

More recent studies indicate that, more than in any previous time period or generation, we are lonelier than ever before. Thought to be due to global mobility (it is more common to move away from family to different areas or countries), the way we use technology, and the rise of individualism. [1] But, as essentially tribal creatures, connection to other human beings is essential for our wellbeing and resilience.

 

loneliness

The impact of loneliness

For many thousands of years, humans have stayed safe by living in co-operative groups. Separation from the tribe was extremely dangerous and something to avoid at all costs, so we are hard-wired to form and maintain social groups.

It’s why when we are isolated, our nervous system is activated, and we generally feel on high alert. It is our bodies signalling to us that we need to get back to the tribe! Your body produces the same ‘fight or flight’ response when you’re lonely as when you’re stressed. Meaning cortisol levels increase and, generally, take a long time to dissipate afterwards, leaving us in what is essentially a long-term, low-level threat state.

There have been some landmark studies related to life longevity and loneliness. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 140 studies on the subject and found that loneliness increases premature death by 26%. [2]

It is important to remove the shame and stigma around loneliness. Many of us go through periods of loneliness at some point in our lives, which is entirely natural. It could be due to changes in circumstances, i.e. moving to a new area/country, friends moving away, having a baby or an international pandemic. It could be due to mental illness or a neurological condition that makes it harder to connect with others, or traumas we’ve experienced, which can also make it hard to form healthy relationships.

 

Are we lonely?

Complete this brief self-assessment to see if you need to work on your social connections:

1.  I have a meaningful conversation with someone most days of the week
2.  When I’m upset, I have someone I can talk to
3.  I have at least two close friends I can call on if I need someone
4.  I never go more than a day without having a conversation with someone
5.  I interact with people regularly in my work
6.  I feel a sense of belonging to at least one social group
7.  I regularly talk to my neighbours or people in my local community
8.  I don’t feel sad or upset when I spend time alone
9.  I feel like I fit in well with my work colleagues
10.  I don’t go more than 3-4 days without seeing someone in-person

If you agree with fewer than 4 of these statements, it would be advisable to look at strengthening your social bonds with others.

 

How we can stay connected

With all this in mind, how can we work on our relationships in a world where we are predominantly living, and interacting, virtually? Where we no longer work within offices, or live in tight knit communities?

 

Staying connected in a virtual world

It’s time to rethink how we use social media. Studies show that when people use more social media, they tend to have fewer offline interactions.

The tricky thing about social media is that, while we are using it, we get the impression that we are engaging in meaningful social interaction. That’s not to say there isn’t any value in these interactions, but the nature of these connections is not a substitute for the in person, face to face time that we need to form strong bonds and overcome loneliness.

We want to use technology to support connection, not to replace it. So, when you hear from someone you care about — friend, parent, sibling, collaborator, acquaintance, or long-lost cousin — try to convert it to a substantial social connection: an in person meet-up, a video chat, or a phone call.

 

loneliness

It's the little things

If I asked you whether you liked speaking to strangers on public transport, I can probably guess what your answer would be…

Many of us don’t like the idea of chatting to a stranger but research indicates that, when we do, we generally find it a pleasant experience.

There was a 2015 study in which researchers asked a group of individuals to chat to the barista as they ordered their morning coffee, and asked another control group not to. They evaluated the participants’ moods afterwards and found that the group who did chat to the barista came away with an improved mood and a greater sense of belonging. [3]

When we think about connecting with others, we usually think about building our friendship circle (which is, of course, very important), but can underestimate the way smaller moments of connection feel – for us, and for others.

 

Expanding your ‘tribe’

Sometimes, we find it hard to join existing groups or make new friends as an adult, but we can look at how easily children make new friends and take inspiration from them.

Jump in. It can start with a common interest or just general conversation – you can always start with the weather (a common topic, but always a common ground). Join social groups, classes, running clubs, volunteer. Research tells us that singing and dancing in particular bring a sense of togetherness and can have a very powerful social effect.

Technology can help us find those with whom we share a common ground with too. You can find meet ups and support groups, as well as clubs and activities on meetup.com or on similar sites and apps – individuals or groups that meet to practice language skills, share a picnic, appreciate records, whatever you can think of and whatever suits you best.

loneliness

 

You won’t regret it

Author, Dan Pink wrote a book called The Power of Regret. He found that as we get older, we come to regret the things we didn’t do, more so than the things we did. A common theme that came up were what he calls “connection regrets.” Regrets that they didn’t reach out to someone, regrets about losing touch with someone, regrets over the breakdown of a relationship or for not repairing things after a fall out.

So, what is our hesitation when reaching out to someone? Often, we don’t reach out as we believe it will be awkward, don’t know where to start, or fear rejection.

But the chances are most people would be happy to hear from us. We need to be willing to lean into the discomfort of that awkwardness and push through.

 

~

 

As technologies develop and the world of work continues to evolve, more than ever, we need to find ways to connect with each other. We must put ourselves in positions where we are likely to connect with others, even if that feels like an intimidating or unattractive proposition initially. As we know, we will feel better for having connected with someone, even if it’s a brief interaction.

So, if you can do one thing this Mental Health Awareness Week, we would love to encourage you to make a connection with another person or take some action to strengthen your social circle – we can all improve loneliness with a collective effort.

Learn more about loneliness in our new webinar, Overcoming Loneliness.

 

 

REFERENCES

[1] Hertz N, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That's Pulling Apart (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2021)

[2] Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2015;10(2):227-237. doi:10.1177/1745691614568352

[3] Sandstrom GM, Dunn EW. Is Efficiency Overrated?: Minimal Social Interactions Lead to Belonging and Positive Affect. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014;5(4):437-442. doi:10.1177/1948550613502990

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