6 Facts You May Not Know About Loneliness
Week four of the Great Winter Get Together focuses on understanding loneliness, destigmatising it and facing it. Since the global pandemic, one in four Brits has identified themselves as lonely, and millions have experienced social isolation. It is a feeling many people will have, but by not talking about it little progress is made to overcome it.
An additional and crucial step we need to take to building connections and communities is to normalise loneliness. Much like an elephant in a room, ignoring it won't make it leave. Together we can normalise loneliness by understanding it and talking about it.
Many of us will have experienced loneliness and social isolation, however it differs from person to person and can be triggered by different situations. You can live alone and feel content, but be part of a big household and feel lonely. This inconsistency made us think of other things we may not know or fully understand about loneliness and social isolation. In the past few years, neuroscientists and psychologists have been researching the topic, and we have compiled some of the most insightful facts about loneliness and social isolation to help get the conversation started.
1. The difference between social isolation and loneliness
Social isolation means you do not have enough people to interact with, whereas loneliness is how you think about or perceive your situation. Someone who feels lonely may have family and friends nearby, but still experience feelings of loneliness. Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. Social isolation is about the quantity but not necessarily the quality of relationships. Both concepts can lead to the other and both can occur at the same time.
2. Socialising is as important as eating
MRI scans have picked up that hunger and loneliness activate the same area in the brain. This suggests that socialisation is a human need as much as food and water. Being in isolation has you craving socialisation as much as fasting has you craving food. They even uncovered that hungry people were less responsive to socialising stimulus, supporting the concept of “hanger", the irritable state you can be in when hungry. The good news is that loneliness is as reversible as hunger!
3. A warm hot shower is like a warm hug
People who experience loneliness also use physical warmth, such as taking longer hotter showers, as a substitute for social warmth. This was even extended to people who were socially excluded in experiments opting for hot drinks and food over cold.
4. Television can help people feel connected
At Together TV we are all about doing more than just watching telly. However, television can make life a little easier when you are lonely and having to isolate. Watching television is particularly comforting for older generations as it can help them remain connected to the outside world. It can help sharpen minds, keep viewers informed of what's going on and also offer conversation topics. Learn gardening tips with Charlie Dimmock and the Rich Brothers in Garden Rescue, cook up a storm with the Hairy Bikers or Nadiya's Family Favourites or just see what is on today.
5. Loneliness can be spread
Feeling lonely can be contagious. The hostility expressed by people who experience loneliness can have a similar negative impact on people, creating a chain reaction of rejection and isolation. Research has actually found that most people experiencing loneliness are linked to other people who feel lonely and even non-lonely people who are around lonely people can gradually experience loneliness.
6. Changing your attitude is the most effective loneliness intervention
Whilst increasing your access to socialising, your social skills and social support network are all ways to overcome loneliness, changing the way you think can have the biggest impact. Negative thought patterns are a classic human pitfall. Changing them takes hard work, but it is effective.
So, if you are feeling lonely, pause. Try to identify the automatic negative thoughts - such as assuming people don't want to hear from you - and reframe that thought as a theory rather than fact. What are the facts? Is that person perhaps busy? Are they maybe also feeling lonely and don't want to bring you down? Or have they lost their voice? Don't jump to conclusions; be kind to yourself.
The Jo Cox Foundation's Great Get Together and Marmalade Trust produced an Understanding Loneliness Tool Kit providing resources and advice for facing social isolation and loneliness. Give it a read for more advice on how to start understanding and talking about loneliness.
By understanding more about loneliness, we can start having more conversations to break down barriers and find out what each individual needs to feel less lonely. Whether it’s a weekly phone call, a helping hand with household chores or a pen pal, start the conversation today and strive for a connected community.
1. Age UK (2020). Loneliness and isolation - understanding the difference and why it matters. Retrieved from https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/loneliness-isolation-understanding-the-difference-why-it-matters/
2. Tomova, L., Wang, K.L., Thompson, T. et al. (2020). Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hunger. Nat Neurosci 23, 1597-1605. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-020-00742-z
3. Bargh, J. A., & Shalev, I. (2012). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 12(1), 154-162. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023527
4. Mental Health Foundation (2019) TV and later life: a link to the outside world. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/tv-and-later-life-link-outside-world
5. Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: the structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(6), 977–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016076
6. Masi, C. M., Chen, H. Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 15(3), 219-266. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868310377394