If you’ve ever felt isolated, you’re not alone. Loneliness is one of our great modern public health crises and it takes courage to battle this often private suffering
Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure, explains why she’s promoting a campaign of kindness and the importance of relationships with our friends.
Nine million people in the UK are always or often lonely: 43% of 17-25-year-olds experience loneliness and less than half of them feel loved; 24% of parents always or often feel lonely; 50% of disabled people and 58% of migrants and refugees feel lonely on any given day; eight out of ten carers feel lonely while looking after a loved one; and 3.6 million people over the age of 65 identify TV as their main form of company. But how many of these people have actually said the words out loud: “I’m lonely”?
Such shame is attached to the feeling that we bury it, when the most effective way to strip loneliness of its power is to name it. Feeling those words on your tongue, saying them to someone you trust (whether a doctor, a friend or a partner) can be an enormous relief. But it takes courage to push past the guilt and the fear. To say “You know what? I get lonely sometimes” is a gesture of great bravery.
We assume that loneliness is somehow linked to a lack of lovability on our part; that some kind of character flaw is responsible. But loneliness is a natural human experience that has more to do with modernity, distance, politics, health, the illusion of intimacy on social media and the way we choose to spend our time than it does our actual compatibility with other members of the human race.
The health risks of loneliness
Loneliness is also dangerous and as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more closely linked to mortality than obesity. That’s why we must launch a robust campaign of kindness towards one another and learn to prioritise friendship again. Loneliness lives in the chasm between the quantity and quality of our relationships. You can be lonely in a marriage, a crowded room or at a party surrounded by friends. It’s an existential condition, but also a deeply practical one. Friendship, however – to look at this in a sunnier way – is the cure to loneliness.
Good-quality social interaction reduces our chances of getting cancer, slows down the development of tumours, protects us from mental illness, wards off dementia, makes us less likely to be obese, encourages us to take our medication, wills us to eat more healthily and literally extends our lifetime. It is the single most sensible thing we can do for our health, and yet we do not talk about it with any urgency. We need to be out there making new friends and reviving old ones.
If you’ve felt lonely, whether for a fleeting moment or a bigger chunk of time, find a way to rediscover friendship. Chat to a neighbour over the fence, invite a work colleague for dinner, add your partner’s sister’s husband on Facebook. Social interaction can be terrifying, but it couldn’t be more important. Pick up the phone and ask someone out for coffee or wine. Right now.
Kate Leaver is the author of The Friendship Cure: A Manifesto for Reconnecting the Modern World, £16.99, Duckworth Overlook.
Main illustration © Katie Hickey