A couple of weeks ago I read an article called “The Loneliness Epidemic” that stated “loneliness may be more hazardous to health than obesity” (Preidt, 2017). It went on to say that over 42 million American aged 45 and older suffered from chronic loneliness. As a society, we are becoming more socially isolated, particularly as we age. And, it isn’t always out of choice.
But sometimes it is. I also read an article about another man who chose to live on an island alone for 28 years, and thrived (Khan 2017).
This led me to look further into the topic of loneliness. Why do some of thrive in lonely environment and others perish?
Most of us perceive the concept of loneliness as being isolated, whether by living in a remote location or living alone. But, this is not the case. People can feel loneliness even when they live surrounded by others. Others can live alone and not feel lonely, as with the man on the island.
Loneliness is about having the perception of limited to no support network. It is a feeling of distress that comes from not having one’s social needs met, and not having good quality social relationships (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).
Loneliness is more common than we may realize, and although it is believed to be more prevalent amongst older adults, it occurs at all ages. About 80% of people younger than 18 years experience loneliness, where as 40% of adults over 65 suffer from it (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).
Why is Loneliness A Problem?
Along with the emotional stress that loneliness creates, loneliness is associated with deteriorating health. There is a link between loneliness and risk of cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). It is associated with increased morbidity, mortality, depression, suicide, personality disorders, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, psychoses, and stress. People who are lonely are more likely to perceive the world in a negative manner, get low quality sleep, and suffer from emotional conditions like anger and anxiety (Hawkley & Caccioppo, 2010).
Coming Back to the Man on the Island
Mauro Morandi is 78-years old, and has been living on Budelli Island near Corsica. He was stranded there in 1989, after troubles with his boat. When he discovered the beauty of the island he decided to stay on, and has done so for the past 28 years. The island is part of a National Park, which enables him to interact with visitors once in a while, but he spends several days at a time in complete isolation (Khan, 2017).
He spends his time in creative endeavors, sculpting, reading, meditating, and studying the island in minute detail, which apparently are characteristic of those who spend time in isolation. He is happy and feels at one with the universe (Khan, 2017). It is this feeling of connection with the universe that helps Morandi not to feel lonely. And, despite living alone, he keeps himself busy.
How was this possible? Well, simply Morandi chose to live in isolation and feels satisfied with his choice. He feels he gets his support from his environment, and that is enough for him.
How Can We Feel Less Lonely?
Loneliness is a complex issue because the feeling of loneliness is personal. We all experience loneliness in a unique manner and for our own reasons. Thus, the approach to coping with loneliness will also be different for each of us. Here are some suggestions with which to start:
- Change our perception. Loneliness is a feeling, and thus one that can be changed. Begin by accepting that we feel lonely, but instead of allowing ourselves to dwell in the feeling, accept it. By accepting us, it allows us to face our reality, and gives us the beginning frame of mind to move on and create change.
- Writing out what we are feeling or what we are going through helps us to release our emotions. We can put them on paper and thus let them go. Some take this a step further and destroy or get rid of the writing to assist in “letting go” of the emotions.
- Living in the moment or in the present gives us an increased ability to not dwell on our feelings or in the past and future, but rather in the here and now.
- Think of others. When we consider people beyond ourselves it helps us get out of our heads. It helps us to notice that there are other people and other situations outside ourselves, and that our world is bigger than just us.
- Reach out. Consider our interests, hobbies, passion, and beliefs, and seek to become part of a group of people who share them. This will give us the opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals. Or find a therapist. Speaking to someone may ease loneliness.
- Get involved and volunteer. Helping others can help us as well, not only with a sense of satisfaction, but also with a sense of belonging.
- Go to places where there are a lot of people, like cafes and malls. It will help us feel surrounded by people without having to commit to engaging with them. This will be useful if the feeling of loneliness is due to isolation.
- Any time we feel inclined to say “no” to a social gathering, an invitation, or a get-together, say “yes” instead. It takes effort, and may go against our nature, but we may be surprised by the outcome. We may form connections with others when we did not expect to.
- Support isn’t just about people. Getting a pet can make a difference. Pets keep us company and provide us with a being to care for.
Loneliness is about having support and feeling supported. Support does not need to be from people in our immediate environment. We can feel supported by people who live at a distance, and even by people we have not met in person. The difference comes in how we perceive our environment.
Hawkley, L. C. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218-227. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8
Khan, G. (2017). Meet the man who has lives alone on this island for 28 years. National Geographic. Retrieved on August 17, 2017 from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/europe/italy/photos-of-life-alone-on-a-paradise-island/
Preidt, R. (2017). ‘Loneliness epidemic’ called a major public health threat. MedicineNet. Retrieved on August 9, 2017 from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=205886&ecd=mnl_day_080817