Studies show that humanity is experiencing a real epidemic of loneliness even though in this day and age, we are more connected than ever.
Gone are the days when you had to wait weeks and months for a letter from your loved one – now a second or two is all it takes. It has become so easy to stay in touch with and search for others, no matter how many miles away they may be. So then, why is there a sad irony that the world is now lonelier than it ever has been?
Human beings by nature feel the need to belong and stay connected to each other. If we lack that basic instinct, we experience what is called social pain – a sensation that is just as real as physical pain. Research has deduced that loneliness and rejection both activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
Research is even suggesting that loneliness is just as big a health risk as obesity and smoking. According to a study conducted by the Brigham Young University in the US, loneliness increases mortality risk by 26%. Another survey study by the Mental Health Foundation shows that one in ten people in the UK feel lonely. Britain has even been voted the loneliness capital of Europe.
But why is this happening?
The answer to this is the changes that have occurred in society since technology and the internet have advanced. The way we communicate may have improved, but the overall life changes have made us become more isolated. The world seems smaller now that travel is so easy and accessible to everyone. Because of work or study, we often live far away from our friends and family and rely on technology to substitute for face to face interaction. This eventually makes us feel less connected and isolated.
Experiencing temporary loneliness is something that every person will naturally feel. Moving away or losing a loved one is examples of when we experience that. Research suggests that this time of loneliness can be useful because it triggers us to reconnect or build new relationships to reduce the pain. However, when we are unable to do that, the state of loneliness is prolonged and can last for many years. Reports vary, but typical numbers of people experiencing loneliness in this prolonged way range from three to 30 per cent.
For those that fall into this category, research shockingly shows that it has a greater impact on your health than being obese, or having 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has also been linked to poor mental health. In a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, more than a third of people surveyed had felt depressed as a result of feeling lonely.
A common misconception people have about loneliness is that only the elderly, or older people, can experience it. However, it should be acknowledged that it can affect people of all ages, including children. Loneliness is especially prevalent amongst teenagers, with studies showing between 20 and 60 percent reportedly feeling lonely, as comparison to 40 or 50 percent of the elderly population.
Another big misconception is that you have to be alone to feel lonely. You can very easily feel lonely even when surrounded by people. It’s about the quality and not the quantity of relationships we have.
So what can we do to reduce loneliness?
As of right now, there is no real concrete answer for this question. Increasing opportunities to meet new people and make friends works with some people, but it is not as simple for others. For those who suffer from long-term loneliness, anxiety and lack of self-confidence can hinder their capability of trusting and meeting new people. As of now researchers are finding the best and most successful results come from strategies that target negative thought processes.