Most of us feel lonely from time to time – and while spending time alone has its benefits (famous inventor Thomas Edison declared “the best thinking is done in solitude”) – there’s nothing positive about that crushing feeling of loneliness that comes from feeling like you have no one to talk to or support you.
Unfortunately it is a common problem. In a recent survey of 3,000 Britons, 8 percent reported that they had no real friends and that most of their social interactions take place online.
I’m not a very sociable person, but I’m lucky enough to have my wife, Clare, push me to become more sociable.
And like 39 percent of those surveyed who said their best friend was their partner, I’d say she’s my best friend and my biggest emotional support (and sometimes my biggest critic).
The problem of loneliness has only gotten worse: four million people in Britain suffer from chronic loneliness and the number who report feeling lonely ‘often or always’ has risen by almost 20 per cent since the onset of Covid, the charity Campaign To End Loneliness reports.
So if you see your neighbor, wave – and have a chat!
They found that women report being chronically lonely more often than men. This may be because women live longer, so there are more widows than widowers.
We are intensely social animals, which is why loneliness has such toxic effects on us; it can lead not only to anxiety and depression, but also to poor sleep, heart disease, stroke, and premature death.
The increase in loneliness is partly related to changes in working methods, with people spending more time at home on computers, but also to the closure of bank and post office branches and, as the Mail reports, community pharmacies.
Standing in line at a bank or post office, or getting your prescription, isn’t exactly a great social outing, but for many it’s a lifeline; an opportunity to have a short conversation with another human being.
And even brief conversations with a stranger can make a difference to your mental health – and the stranger’s.
For example, when buying coffee in the morning, especially when I’m in a hurry, I usually order, tap my card on the machine, and run.
But a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia in Canada found that encouraging people to smile, make eye contact, and have a short conversation when ordering a cup of coffee not only meant that the person buying the coffee got a boost to their happiness and sense of belonging, it also contributed to the server’s happiness.
Likewise, when I’m at a grocery store, I always use the automated checkout to avoid standing in line behind someone chatting with the cashier.
Now a Dutch supermarket chain, with the delightful name Jumbo, has discovered that there is a real demand from some customers for exactly this kind of interaction.
That’s why it’s created special checkouts, “chat checkouts,” where customers and cashiers can chat at their leisure without someone like me standing behind them, biting their lips and looking at their watch.
The chat checkouts have proved so popular that they are being introduced in most Jumbo stores.
Getting a pet is another way to combat loneliness, especially if you’ve recently lost a spouse, as a 2019 study from Florida State University found.
Dawn Carr, a professor of sociology and the lead author, pointed out that pets provide not only companionship, but also unconditional love (well, at least dogs do).
“You can talk to your dog,” she said. “They’re not going to tell you you’re a bad person, they’re just going to love you. Or you can pet your cat and that’s calming.”
For many, having a pet is not practical. Robot versions may soon be an option – and research shows they can actually help.
In a recent study from the University of Plymouth, robotic cats and dogs were given to care home residents.
While they weren’t state of the art, they were cuddly, made appropriate noises, and moved a little.
Despite being just one step up from fluffy toys, the robotic animals helped reduce anxiety and depression and had a calming effect.
However, the best way to combat loneliness is to be brave, go out into the world, and interact with others.
And starting close to home is perhaps the easiest. I recently interviewed Pamela Qualter, a professor of psychology for education at the University of Manchester who is an expert on the importance of social relationships, and she told me that doing small acts of kindness for your neighbors is a particularly powerful way to reduce your loneliness.
She was one of the lead authors of a trial that asked people to do a kind deed for a neighbor once a week for four weeks.
This could be something practical like taking out their bins or just chatting on the street.
The results showed that this not only reduced the feeling of loneliness of both the giver and the receiver, but also increased the feeling of oneness in the neighborhood.
‘Knowing that your neighbors care about you really brings a community together,’ Professor Qualter told me.
At a time when more people feel isolated, feeling part of a community, something bigger than you, is hugely important for mental and possibly physical health (now being assessed in a three-year UK research project called Common Health Assets, which evaluates the effect of community-led organizations on health and well-being).
So if you see your neighbor, wave – and have a chat!