Study after study has shown that loneliness is bad for our health. It raises the risk of a person suffering heart disease and stroke, and is as hazardous as smoking or obesity. Lonely people could even be at risk of dying earlier.
It’s enough to make governments and health organizations sit up and take notice. So how lonely are we? And who is most at risk? A huge new study – the largest of its kind on loneliness – can help provide answers to those and many other questions.
On Valentine’s Day earlier this year, British broadcaster the BBC, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Manchester, Brunel University London and the University of Exeter launched the BBC Loneliness Experiment. The experiment included an in-depth survey on loneliness open to anyone over the age of 16. Among the questions were: What qualities do you look for in a friend? What does loneliness mean to you? and What do you think lonely people could do to feel better. Participants were also asked about their use of technology and lifestyle. More than 55,000 people from all over the world took part, making it the largest-ever survey of its kind and it had some surprising findings.
Young people are the most lonely
It’s not surprising that many older people feel lonely. Friends may have died, they may have lost life partners, and their family – if they have one – may live some distance away. But, according to the survey, it’s actually young people who say they are suffering the most. Forty percent of 16-24 year olds say they feel lonely, compared with only 27% of those aged 75 or older. The results echo those of other surveys carried out earlier in the year. It could be that young people are simply more open to talking about how they feel, the BBC survey suggests. Or it could be that young adults experience a lot of upheaval; perhaps leaving home for the first time or starting a new job.
Living alone doesn’t make you lonely
The survey found that people living alone weren’t necessarily more lonely than those who lived with others. That finding suggests that living alone isn’t as much of a problem as spending lots of time alone. It’s not a lack of social skills Loneliness carries stigma – people don’t like to admit to feeling lonely because they don’t want others to think there’s something wrong with them. The survey included an experiment which asked people to guess what emotion someone was feeling just by looking at a picture of their face or their eyes. Those who said they were lonely had no measurable difference in their answers to those who said they weren’t lonely, suggesting, when placed in conjunction with other experiments, that their social skills are the same. Loneliness can be a good thing Surprisingly, 41% of people think loneliness can be a positive experience. It can be the jolt we need to make changes, such as joining a club or taking up a sport. In many cases, loneliness is only a temporary state. However, only 31% of respondents who said they felt lonely agreed, emphasizing just how debilitating the feeling can be. What is loneliness? Loneliness is not the same as being alone. People often choose to be alone, but they don’t choose loneliness. We can be surrounded by friends and family but still feel lonely. Participants said that loneliness was the feeling of having no one to talk to, and of having no one who really understands you. Small things can make a difference The BBC survey asked respondents to suggest ways to alleviate loneliness. Popular ideas included finding a new hobby or sport, confiding in someone that they were lonely, and initiating meetings with people. The piece of advice they said they found least helpful was to go on a date.