Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and physical factors.
Research has shown that loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in marriages, relationships, families, veterans, and those with successful careers. It has been a long explored theme in the literature of human beings since classical antiquity. Loneliness has also been described as social pain—a psychological mechanism meant to motivate an individual to seek social connections. Loneliness is often defined in terms of one’s connectedness to others, or more specifically as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way”.
“More and more community surveys are finding anywhere between 25 and 30 per cent of Canadians across various age groups are reporting persistent loneliness or social isolation,” says Dr. Robin Lennox, a family physician and assistant professor at McMaster University. And, she says there are numerous health risks associated with loneliness.
Loneliness brings health risks, says doctor
“The one that’s most stark is the fact that we are actually seeing higher…rates of death—among those who report higher rates of loneliness and social isolation.
“And we’re also seeing higher rates of other illnesses such as cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, substance use and addiction as well as more difficulty controlling issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes—so, really wide-ranging effects on health.”
It’s not clear exactly why there is so much loneliness in Canada but Lennox thinks certain social changes may be involved. Government statistics collected in 2016 show that 28 per cent of households are single-person households. That she says, may lead to more social isolation.
“In addition, we’re seeing greater and greater use of technology for social engagement, which we would think would increase the amount of social satisfaction we have. But it’s possible that the fact that most of those ways that we access technology for social engagement through social media are actually done alone. So, we might actually be inadvertently creating more isolation even though we’re trying to engage on different platforms.”
Summer can be the loneliest time.
By definition, isolated people may experience summer social festivities as spectators rather than participants. They may receive few invites for barbeques, picnics or patio drinks; meaning that their sense of isolation may be amplified (rather than diminished) during the warmer months.
Maybe T.S. Eliot was onto something.
All this is especially concerning given that recent data suggests we may be experiencing an epidemic of loneliness in Canada. Indeed, statistics suggest that more and more people are spending more and more time alone, and this is having a negative impact on their mental health.
For example, the number of people living alone has increased dramatically in recent years, with almost one in three Canadian households only having one occupant.
Marriage rates are at an all-time low, and around 40 per cent of marriages that do occur end in divorce. Membership of organizations such as churches, trade unions and sports clubs has also declined precipitously, meaning people have less chance to meet and befriend other like-minded people.
Social media has been implicated in this epidemic of loneliness. Statistics indicate that growing numbers of people are spending increasing proportions of their time on social media, and less time in face-to-face interaction. Numerous studies suggest that more time surfing and less time socializing can negatively affect mental health.
In fact, a University of Pittsburgh study published last year indicated that heavy users of social media are 2.7 times more likely to be depressed than other people.
Mental Health Impact
Other studies indicate a correlation between social isolation, loneliness and other negative mental health outcomes, including suicide, anxiety and substance abuse. This is especially the case for people undergoing life transitions involving a radical change in social circumstances which can lead to isolation and loneliness; particularly divorce, job loss and relocation.
Even eating alone can be bad for your mental health. A recent study conducted by Dr Frank Elgar at McGill shows that frequent family dinners can contribute towards better emotional well-being and life satisfaction in adolescents.
The moral of the story: it’s good to talk, it’s good to break bread together, and it’s not good for people to be alone.
Indeed, much research shows that dense and meaningful social connections are good for mental health. This includes support from family and friends, or involvement in supportive communities such as churches, trade unions and civic associations.
What can be done?
We all have a role to play in reducing the epidemic of loneliness. We can redouble our efforts to support and socialize with those who may be lonely. We can reach out to strangers and retail staff with a friendly word. We can spend less time on social media and more time in-person. All this benefits the giver as much as the receiver, resulting in better mental health for all concerned.