On April 22, the television program 60 Minutes Australia aired an episode on loneliness, calling it an epidemic as deadly as smoking. (Bonus for Star Trek fans: the video contains an interview with William Shatner!)
The episode’s key points are:
(1) you might be surprised to learn who suffers from loneliness
(2) any major life change can result in a period of prolonged loneliness
(3) loneliness-induced stress damages not only mental health, but also the immune system
Australia isn’t the first country to examine this issue. In late 2017 former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness an epidemic with the potential to reduce one’s lifespan, and in early 2018 the U.K. appointed its first-ever Minister for Loneliness.
As a result of the growth of social media and the increase in people working from home, the potential for loneliness has flourished. Add a major life transition like divorce, retirement, a move, or death of a spouse, and loneliness can hit hard, with both mental and physical repercussions.
Loneliness can also strike socially active people who are surrounded by loved ones. If you feel like nobody in your circles understands what you are going through, you can feel achingly lonely – hence the popularity of support groups for new mothers, widowers, and more.
I have always felt loneliest the first six weeks after a move. I don’t yet know anybody, so the phone isn’t ringing, and I don’t know anybody to call if I want company. It takes time to form even casual acquaintances, and I really struggled during those periods. Over the years, I learned to plan ahead. I brought books I’d been wanting to read, explored my new neighborhood, tried some new recipes, caught up with old friends, and engaged in some hobbies. Despite all that, though, it was still hard not having any connection outside work.
What can you do if you find yourself in an extended period of loneliness?
- As William Shatner says in the video, do something for somebody. Join a volunteer group or do something on your own to help somebody else have a better day or a better future. Any feeling of connection to others, even if you don’t know them personally, can help.
- Seek out others in the same situation as you. New at a job? Perhaps there’s another newbie with whom you can have lunch while you work on meeting people. First in your peer group to have kids? Ask your pediatrician about a group for new parents.
- Have a list of projects and activities to work on during your lonely period while you are trying to meet people.
- Remind yourself that loneliness does not have to be permanent, that almost everybody feels lonely at some point, and that professional help is available if you find that you’re not able to combat it using the above tools.
When in your life have you felt the loneliest, and what did you do about it?