Having just had a month away from everything and everyone, I can report back… the solitude was sublime.
Far from being lonely, I revelled in the space and freedom each day presented. Released from the everyday treadmill of ‘doing’ and the chains of habit, I could feel myself coming out of the emotional coma that comes from leading life at too fast a pace and without enough self-care.
It was just me and my innermost being idling away the moments, hours and days.
No major revelations. No flashes of inspiration.
Just a deep sense of restorative peace and comfort at being still, with my own questions, reflections and answers.
In contrast, I was struck by the headlines this week despairing one in four Australians as ‘lonely’, and consequently experiencing significantly worse physical and mental health, poorer psychological wellbeing and poorer quality of life than their more socially supported counterparts.
During my masters in psychotherapy studies, I came across the existential philosopher Paul Tillich’s view that loneliness expresses the pain of being alone whereas solitude expresses the glory of being alone.
After experiencing my month of being alone as a positive catalyst for reflection, I can vouch for the glory of solitude. But, like 55% of the Australian population, I can also vouch for the pain of sometimes feeling lonely.
The terrible pain of loneliness
“Loneliness is a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like. It is a personal feeling of social isolation. It is different to feeling alone: we can be surrounded by others but still lonely, or we can be alone but not feel lonely.
Loneliness may be a sign that a person’s relationships are inadequate or don’t meet their expectations or needs. As humans are essentially social animals, loneliness is thought to arise because an innate need to belong to a group is unmet. Loneliness signals a need to form a meaningful connection with others.
Research has found that loneliness is related more to the quality than the quantity of relationships. A lonely person feels that their relationships are not meaningful and that he or she is not understood by others.”
- Journal of Abnormal Psychology (2016)
Loneliness triggers similar neural pathways to physical pain. It can be thought of as a ‘social pain’, a stressor that affects our brain and our physiology.
The cost of isolation
Society has underestimated the lethal nature of loneliness as a serious public health issue.
There is now growing scientific evidence highlighting consequences for physical and mental health that cannot not be ignored.
Loneliness is associated with:
- An increased likelihood of earlier death by 26%. (This is greater than the risk for obesity.)
- Lower levels of psychological health, with sufferers reporting higher levels of depression (an increase of 15%) and anxiety (an increase of 13%) and a loss of confidence.
- Serious physiological effects which negatively impact our ability to handle cognitive tasks and regulate stress.
- Increased inflammation in the body, sleep disorders, headaches, stomach complaints, nausea, colds and infections.
A report last month from Relationships Australia described loneliness as an epidemic, revealing that one in 10 Australians lack social support and one in six is experiencing emotional loneliness. That is, they don’t have a sufficient number of meaningful relationships in their lives to sustain and nurture them, particularly through difficult times.
Single parents (especially single fathers), widowed men, women under the age of 65 and those in de facto relationships report the highest levels of loneliness.
Key to understanding loneliness is the pain of being surrounded by others whilst feeling simultaneously psychologically bereft. The feeling of being ‘on one’s own in the world’, that there is no-one to turn to who understands or appreciates our challenges and troubles can lead to a sense of being emotionally starved.
Lonely at work?
Those of us in roles where we (and our teams) can work ‘anywhere, anytime’ are increasingly prone to being and feeling isolated. There is an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ risk to this flexibility.
Add a dollop of self-doubt into the equation and it’s not long before we have a full-blown case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Today’s dispersed team members are on high alert for decisions and events that take place without their presence, and the rise of the gig economy has the potential to greatly fuel these effects of isolation.
13% of the general population (UK data) report feeling lonely ‘all’ of the time. Our own GLWS research from a sample of over 1900 senior professionals and leaders indicates approx. 7% of us ‘usually or always’ feel lonely or isolated and ‘rarely or never’ feel part of a close or supportive team at work.
Loneliness is a definite fact of life for some people in our workplaces, and given the trends reported above, is an issue that should be attended to.
In our world of 24/7 connectivity and constant promotion of social connection, it’s beyond ironic that the surge in our number of acquaintances seems to have been accompanied with a decline in more meaningful relationships.
In this climate, the challenge is to focus on building deeper bonds with those around us.
To increase the opportunity and frequency of positive connection and minimise the likelihood of the negative affects arising from loneliness, clinical psychologist Michelle Lim, chair of The Australian Coalition to End Loneliness “would never” suggest a lonely person just “go and make a new friend”.
Rather, she would suggest looking within their network for people they feel comfortable with and building on the intimacy of those relationships.
“Connecting with others on a daily basis – be it colleagues at work, your barista, or simply smiling at people you pass – is also important”.
To mark Psychology Week (November 11-17, 2018), the Australian Psychological Society (APS) focussed on the Power of Human Connection as its theme. There are a number of excellent articles and resources available including a tip sheet for improving connection with others, which includes the following useful recommendations and tips. These will help if you or your coachees are experiencing loneliness:
- Don’t make comparisons about the quality of your social connections and those of others. Quality is better than quantity. Focus on gratitude about the relationships you do have.
- Savour moments of connection, wherever you find them (a momentary exchange and smile in a lift or a deeper conversation with a colleague).
- Don’t dwell on what others are thinking about you – shift your focus to the other person or the topic.
- Listen well and ask questions to engage people.
- Offer help to others – showing kindness in this way brings benefits to all.
- Show warmth and interest to generate positive emotion in yourself and others.
- Use names and share your own.
- Ask others about their loved ones, show an interest in their lives.
- Get offline and be with people in person, where ever possible.
- Smile at people you encounter in the public domain; chat a bit to the people who serve you.
- Reach out to friends or colleagues from the past. Rekindle the emotion that what connected you in the first place.
- Embrace opportunities to join in, volunteer and participate in a shared activity.
If you aren’t personally lonely, you may be in a position to assist others at risk by:
- Taking a few moments each day to ‘check in’ with your colleagues or team and genuinely give them your full attention. If you sense that something isn’t ‘right’ with someone, follow up and sensitively explore what is going on for them.
- Seek opportunities to include others in work or non-work activities taking place at work.
- Invite people for a coffee when you can; remember to offer to collect a refreshment for others when you get one yourself.
- As a leader, plan ‘social’ moments for your team – when are you all going to connect beyond the demands of work? Do you have a regular team lunch, team off-site or bonding day?
- Do a regular self-review: How well do you know what’s going on for your team? When did you last show interest and connect over their home lives? How are they, really?
- Remind yourself to be receptive and warm towards invitations to connect from your colleagues and team (even when it’s a busy day and you are ‘under the pump’). Make another time if you have to.
Deep, meaningful relationships help mental health. Really listen to others, be genuine, share your thoughts and feelings and celebrate everyday positive experiences with colleagues and friends, and maybe we can hold the loneliness epidemic at bay.