You’re not alone in feeling lonely. According to the Office for National Statistics, 24% of UK adults report feeling lonely “occasionally,” 16% feel lonely "sometimes", and 5% say they feel lonely “often or always”. Despite common misconceptions, loneliness can affect people who are on their own or surrounded by people.
Can you be lonely but not alone?
Loneliness isn’t restricted to specific age groups, genders or occupations. Neither is it a synonym for social isolation. According to researchers, we can define loneliness as “a self-perceived state in which a person’s network of relationships is either smaller or less satisfying than desired.” So, even if you’re surrounded by people, you might not feel satisfied by your interactions with them.
Whether you've been feeling lonely for a while or you're experiencing it for the first time, understanding why you feel like this may help you handle your feelings better. You may or may not find the perfect solution to the problem. Still, every situation seems less scary when we understand it! Remember, if you feel like you need to talk to someone, the NHS website has a comprehensive list of organisations who can help.
What is the root cause of loneliness?
Feeling connected to people
You might chat with people regularly but not feel connected to them. One recent study found a lack of 'strong-tie' interactions was connected with loneliness. Some people enjoy a wide circle of acquaintances, while others prefer a close-knit group of friends. If you don’t feel like you speak to close friends and family, you might feel better by developing closer relationships, even if it takes time.
Being part of your community
Feeling like we don’t belong can cause us to feel lonely. Another study looked at neighbourhood communities and found that those who don’t feel a sense of belonging in their neighbourhoods are at a greater risk of feeling lonely. It can be hard to integrate into new areas but, luckily, we’ve posted some helpful blogs on getting involved in your local community!
Feeling lonely because we feel like we should
Could loneliness be a self-fulfilling prophecy? As strange as it sounds, we might feel lonely because we expect to feel lonely. In 2014, researchers studied how expectations of loneliness correlated with feelings of loneliness in later life. Participants reported their expectations and were asked how they felt eight years later. Many participants who expected to feel lonely, did. Researchers suggested that combatting age-related stereotypes could have an impact on reducing loneliness in later life.
Who gets lonely and what is loneliness a sign of?
Loneliness is a sign that you feel disconnected from people, and it can happen to anyone. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) looked at the profiles of the people who feel the loneliest and found that men were less likely to report feeling lonely than women. However, this could be because men feel less comfortable admitting to or recognising how they are feeling. Overall, the ONS found three main profiles of people who were most likely to report feelings of loneliness:
- Younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area
- Unmarried, middle-agers with long-term health conditions
- Widowed older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions
The second two profiles were unlikely to have partners, but over 50% of the young renters were in a relationship. This suggests that we can still feel lonely even if we are in a relationship. The study doesn't delve into the amount of social contact each group had. Yet, the findings seem to suggest that strong connections in our local vicinity are vital to our wellbeing.
Although this might sound disheartening, it means that we’re not alone in our feelings. Many people are in similar situations, and it’s normal to feel this way, whatever age we are.
Charlotte of Mind and The Gap agreed, telling us: “Loneliness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a universal feeling that can affect anyone at any time. Even if you feel completely alone, there will always be someone ready to listen.”
What can we do to feel less lonely?
Looking at how we view ourselves
Academic researchers have found that loneliness sometimes relates to negative self-image. The study didn’t establish cause and effect, so it doesn’t explain whether loneliness causes us to feel bad about ourselves or if feeling bad about ourselves causes loneliness. But, feeling unhappy about the way we are won’t help ease feelings of loneliness. So, what can we do to help?
If you’re feeling down, there are plenty of places you can go to talk to someone. The NHS website is a fantastic place to start, with resources and advice for easing feelings of loneliness. You can also speak to your GP or make a self-referral for therapy services through the NHS. Several charities may also be able to help. For example, The Silver Line is an initiative set up for older people in the UK. They are open 24/7 for anyone who needs to talk. They say:
“The Silver Line is the only free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.”
Taking up a hobby you enjoy
If you want to feel more connected to people, taking up a hobby you enjoy could help you to meet likeminded friends. Age UK suggests taking up a hobby or volunteering as a way to meet people who have interests and ideas in common with us. This could be something you do in person or online, frequently or occasionally. The best part about taking up a new hobby is that you get to decide what you want to do!
Age UK can also signpost you to forums for over 50s in your local area. These are a great option if you're not able to get out and about at the moment. Building meaningful, lasting relationships can take time. For more inspiration, read our article called 7 Ways to Deal with Loneliness.