Loneliness is a major health hazard and can no longer be ignored, according to Dr Michelle Lim, a clinical psychologist and lecturer who is conducting a survey on the health and wellbeing of Australians.
She says society underestimates the danger of loneliness as a serious public health issue and that a lack of social connection poses a similar risk of early death as obesity. She points out that loneliness is also a recognised risk factor for a wide range of physical health issues, from fragmented sleep and dementia to heart problems.
As the Australian Psychological Society (APS) puts a focus on loneliness in National Psychology Week and social media are regularly espoused as enabling social connections, Dr Lim emphasises that the quality of relationships is more important than the quantity.
“The challenge is to address loneliness and focus on building significant bonds with those around us,” she says.
“Researchers have found loneliness is not about the amount of time one spends with other people or alone. It is related more to quality of relationships rather than quantity.
“A lonely person feels that he or she is not understood by others, and may not think they hold meaningful relationships.”
She describes loneliness as little different to hunger, thirst or physical pain, which signal the need to eat, drink or seek medical attention, explaining that from an evolutionary viewpoint, social groups have ensured our survival as a species.
But can social connections banish loneliness?
It’s not that simple, says Dr Lim.
“Generally, ‘lonely’ people are encouraged to join a group or make a new friend, on the assumption that loneliness will then simply go away.
“While creating opportunities to connect with others provides a platform for social interaction, relieving the social pain is not so straightforward.
“Lonely people can have misgivings about social situations and as a result show rejecting behaviours. These can be misconstrued as unfriendliness, and people around the lonely person respond accordingly. This is how loneliness can become a persistent cycle.”
So how best to tackle loneliness?
Treatments that focused on changing negative thinking about others were more effective than those encouraging social interaction, according to studies.
Another strategy was to improve the quality of our relationships, specifically by building intimacy with those around us.
“Indeed, even individuals who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness have reported improvements in their wellbeing and relationships after sharing positive emotions and doing more positive activities with others,” says Dr Lim. “However, research using a positive psychology approach to loneliness remains in its infancy.”
Dr Lim says the growing scientific evidence highlighting the negative consequences of loneliness for physical and mental health can no longer be ignored. Take part in her study here.
Do you think loneliness is a major health problem? Have you ever felt lonely? What have you done to tackle loneliness?