Our Loneliness Guide

As a loneliness charity, we're dedicated to encouraging people to understand more about loneliness, one conversation at a time.

What is loneliness?

We all feel lonely at times – it’s a normal human emotion.

We’re biologically wired for social contact, and loneliness is our signal that we need more.

The definition: Loneliness is a perceived mismatch between the quality or quantity of social connections that a person has and what they would like to have [1].

You don’t have to be on your own to feel lonely – you might feel lonely in a relationship or while spending time with friends or family – especially if you don’t feel understood or cared for by the people around you. Other people might choose to be alone and live happily without much social contact.

Are there different types of loneliness?

Loneliness can also be characterised by its intensity, or how strongly it is felt, which can change from moment to moment and over different durations of time [2]. There are different types of loneliness including:

Emotional loneliness – When someone you were very close with is no longer there. This could be a partner or a close friend.

Social loneliness – When you feel like you’re lacking a wider social network of friends, neighbours or colleagues.

Transient loneliness – A feeling that comes and goes.

Situational loneliness – Loneliness which you only feel at certain times like Sundays, bank holidays or Christmas.

Chronic loneliness – When you feel lonely all or most of the time.

Who experiences loneliness?

Most of us will experience loneliness at some point in our lives, regardless of age, circumstance and background. Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely [3].

It’s a common misconception that loneliness is limited to older people. In fact, it’s now the 16-24-year old’s who are the loneliest age group in the UK [4].

What is the effect of long-term loneliness?

There has been lots of research on the effects of loneliness for our mental and physical health – it’s seen as one of the biggest health concerns we face.

Loneliness has been linked to early deaths and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and poor sleep. It’s as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely [5-7].

If you’ve been feeling lonely for a long time, make an appointment to see your GP to make sure that you are getting the right support.

What causes loneliness?

There are many causes for loneliness and each of us will experience loneliness differently. There are key life points which will increase the likelihood of feeling lonely, such as:  

  • Moving away from home
  • Starting university or a new job
  • Becoming a new parent
  • Going through a relationship break-up
  • Suffering a bereavement

Has loneliness always affected people?

Human beings evolved to feel safest in groups, and as a result, we experience isolation as a physical state of emergency.

Imagine if you lived in a tribe and while you were out hunting, you found yourself alone. You’d be under serious threat without the protection of your group – your levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, would rocket up, and would stay raised until you’re back with your tribe [8].

How should we be talking about loneliness?

Telling someone that you’re lonely is an important step but it’s also important to be mindful of how we talk about it.

We still use words like ‘admitting’ to and ‘suffering’ from, which can unintentionally add to the belief that something is wrong with us. There is absolutely no shame in feeling lonely and changing the language around loneliness is a positive and liberating step forward. The more we talk about it, the more we normalise it and we can move towards a society where it can be spoken about openly. 

“I’ve been struggling on my own during lockdown. I decided to FaceTime my uncle, and when he asked how I was doing, I was just honest and said ‘I’m feeling pretty lonely, actually’. He surprised me by saying ‘yeah, I know how you feel’. I’m so glad I reached out because we both decided to have a (virtual) coffee together each morning. It’s been transformative for us both.” – Jack, 28.

“I love spending time with my young kids. But some days I feel so lonely, which isn’t a nice feeling. I signed myself up to some virtual parenting groups and I mentioned how I was feeling. Turns out, plenty of other parents felt similarly. I realised even though I was with my family all day, I felt lonely because I was yearning for some grown-up conversation and connection!” – Alison – 39

Tips for understanding loneliness and helping yourself and others feel more connected

We have devised these tips with COVID-19 social distancing measures in mind. Please do make sure you adhere to the up-to-date guidance from the UK Government.

Home

  • Send a letter or postcard to someone isolating by themselves
  • Organise a weekly video call with friends or family
  • Reach out to a friend to remind them you’re always there to talk
  • Arrange to watch a film at the same time as a friend and video call
  • Share your experiences of loneliness on social media – you might encourage others to share as well!
  • Arrange a video call with someone you haven’t seen in a while
  • Talk with friends or family about their experiences of loneliness during lockdown
  • Start or join a virtual book or film club
  • Join a virtual pub quiz
  • Spend some time in nature or tend to some indoor plants
  • Some people find it easier to have meaningful conversations while walking rather than sitting face-to-face
  • Prioritise looking after yourself, making sure you are eating healthily, being as active as you can and sleeping well.

Community

  • Start (or join) a WhatsApp or email group for your street. It’s a great way to connect with your neighbours
  • If you know a neighbour who is self-isolating, post a letter under their door to ask if they need help with groceries or errands
  • Have a cup of tea with your neighbour (while maintaining appropriate distance)
  • Reach out to a local charity and volunteer your support
  • Reach out to a friend, family member or neighbour who is experiencing loneliness or isolation
  • If you’re able to get out, smile and say hello to passers-by. Even from two-metres, this can make a big difference
  • Make use of your community – many small local food suppliers will still be open, and can be a friendly place to say hello and chat.

Work

  • Host a weekly social to catch up with colleagues – but try not to talk about work!
  • Encourage employees to reach out to their HR manager if they are feeling lonely
  • ‘Meet’ a colleague for a virtual coffee or lunch
  • Lend your ear – phone (or video call) a colleague and ask how they’re finding the change in routine
  • Email supporters or clients to let them know what you’re doing to combat loneliness and promote greater understanding
  • Use this time to build stronger employee and team relationships by getting to know each other better
  • Be mindful that everyone experiences loneliness in different ways.

School

  • Storytime! Read a book together about loneliness. Here’s a selection of ideas 
  • Ask students to share what they know about loneliness
  • Explore when or why people might feel lonely
  • Discuss what might help someone who is feeling lonely
  • Draw a picture of what loneliness feels like
  • Remember to discuss loneliness openly and positively – loneliness is normal and common.

How can you help someone you know who is lonely?

We’re all different and we all need varying levels of social contact. If someone tells you they are lonely, rather than rushing to suggest lots of new things for them to do, take the time to ask what they need and what they think they’d like to do. We often assume in a well- meaning sense that others are the same as us, when actually we all have very different needs and interests.

It’s also important to distinguish the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Many people are happy with their company for much of the time and find it to be a positive experience. 

Long term loneliness

If you’ve been feeling lonely for a long time it can start to affect your mental health and wellbeing. If you feel that is the case, make an appointment to see your GP to make sure that you are getting the right support.

References

  1. Perlman, Daniel, and L. Anne Peplau. “Toward a social psychology of loneliness.”, 1981
  2. Campaign to End Loneliness. “About Loneliness”.
  3. British Red Cross and Co-Op, 2016
  4. BBC Radio 4, All In The Mind. “The Loneliness Experiment”, 2018
  5. Holt-Lunstad et al. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A MetaAnalytic Review”, 2015
  6. Valtorta et al. “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies”, 2017
  7. Wilson et al.. “Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease”, 2007
  8. Johann Hari. “Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope.”, 2019