When was the last time you felt lonely? Many of us may be hesitant to admit it, but loneliness is as common as swimming at the beach during an Australian summer. It is rarely talked about however, perhaps because of the stigma that follows it like a dark shadow on a dimly lit street.
I’m a fairly well socially connected person and have close family living near by, so may not appear like a typical person that experiences loneliness. However, because of my adventurous and previously nomadic lifestyle having taken me to live in many different countries, many of my social connections are geographically distanced. With each move I’ve taken, the exciting new places, people and perspectives that I’ve relished, have often been coupled with periods of intense loneliness. I’ve often felt I that didn’t belong and have grappled to connect with like-minded souls.
Loneliness typically relates to this feeling of not belonging or having genuine connection with others. Research suggests that it is rife in many countries. Pre-Covid-19 studies found that around one quarter of Australian’s were lonely and more than a fifth of American’s were ‘often or always’ lonely, with comparable figures elsewhere in the world. Vivek Murthy, Former Surgeon General in the Obama administration, discovered the extent of the loneliness pandemic first hand, when he travelled around America talking with people about health issues. He unearthed a pervasive undercurrent of loneliness throughout all walks of life, genders and ages. His book Together, aptly published in 2020 as the world was beginning confront the social isolation instigated by Covid-19 policies, skillfully disentangles different aspects of loneliness.
As the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, a heightened pandemic of loneliness is unravelling behind closed doors. The impacts of Covid-19 on loneliness and social isolation are now being documented, with studies undertaken in 2020 unsurprisingly reporting people have had increased feelings of loneliness since the beginning of the pandemic. The toll is notably high among young people with one study, where the average age of participants was 28 years, finding that 65% of participants experienced increased feelings of loneliness since the beginning of the pandemic.
Loneliness is multifaceted and can be felt through a lack of intimate relationships, friendships or community connections. We can feel lonely for different reasons, and even when we are surrounded by others. Loneliness notably impacts mental well-being, but what you may not be aware, is that it also associated with a host of common health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, depression and anxiety. Together explores the many different dimensions of loneliness through Murthy’s own anecdotes and those of others he met on his journey, touching on the influence of technology and social media, childhood trauma, migration, moving to new cities/communities and contemporary work life on loneliness.
Despite loneliness invoking many unpleasant emotions we’d probably rather not feel, Together isn’t remarkably depressing. You’ll not be shocked to learn that the antidote to loneliness is social connection. Biologically, we need social interactions to survive. In the distant past, it was safer for our hunter gatherer ancestors to stick together rather than struggle on, fighting battles alone. For this reason, our brains have developed so they produce chemicals which generate positive feelings when we experience social interactions (although Murthy does acknowledge that not all social interactions are necessarily positive).
Through the power of real examples, Together demonstrates what happens when we connect with others and how this reduces feelings of loneliness. Far from being stuck in a bottomless pit of loneliness, this book is remarkably uplifting, charting a transformative path that connection can create and how connection can help make our lives more meaningful. Murthy proposes many solutions to conquer the parallel pandemic of loneliness, which may help reduce loneliness in our own and other’s lives. Many of these suggestions may have to wait until we have unrestricted freedom for face to face encounters; our challenge is to identify effective mechanisms that can assist us right now.
One thing I found uncanny was that he advocates spending time in solitude, as this can actually enhance social relationships. Spending focused time alone, self reflecting in an effort to get to know yourself better, developing self compassion and utilising tools like meditation can all help aid relationships with others, thereby increasing connection and reducing loneliness. I’ve personally gained much from this approach, particularly from meditation.
So if connection can reduce loneliness and also foster better mental and physical well-being, then it is vital for vibrant, happy and healthy, people, relationships and communities. Let’s nurture our existing networks, cultivate new connections and reach out to those who may be socially excluded in our community. Because together we can be stronger, healthier and more supportive of others.