A global pandemic has changed the lens on loneliness, but there is an opportunity to build a more inclusive society moving forwards.
Loneliness is not a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of time, mankind has wrestled with solitude, and hankered after companionship and community.
The term, which derives from the Latin word for alone ‘solus’, is said to have first appeared in English literature around the 1800s, but social and economic shifts mean its context has changed over the last two hundred years.
At one point in time, loneliness was something to be avoided at all costs, for fear of being seen as an outsider; a vulnerable or estranged member of society. Yet others saw it as part of life or even necessary; for example in Christianity, loneliness has sometimes been viewed as being about having the necessary time and space to re-connect with God.
Now, however, when we consider loneliness, we typically think of a lack of community or companionship, a feeling of emptiness and the absence of social connection.
“Loneliness is the absence of emotional connection,” said Louise Goulden, founder of The Together Project, when speaking on Sylo Magazine podcast episode ‘Living with Loneliness’, adding that it is ‘about the social connections and the quantity and quality of relationships you hold’.
The problem is that it's becoming a bigger societal issue. Research studies have shown that over nine million people in the UK - almost a fifth of the population - always or often feel lonely, and this has prompted the launch of numerous charities, as well as the appointment of the UK’s first minister for loneliness, back in 2018. The Economist even once boldly declared loneliness be ‘the leprosy of the 21st century’.
And perhaps the reason why loneliness has jumped onto the political agenda is that the dangers here are starker than you might imagine, with research showing that people who are lonely are more likely to develop illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and depression, and also almost 30% more likely to succumb to an early death. Workplaces are also getting the message, with a study conducted by the Co-op and New Economics Foundation calculating that loneliness could be costing private sector employers up to £2.5 billion a year due to absence and productivity losses.
Covid-19 changes the agenda
The Coronavirus pandemic has arguably made loneliness more mainstream than any other historic event over the last fifty years - and with good reason. During the first month of lockdown in March 2020, the UK’s Official National for Statistics (ONS) reported that around 30% of the population (the equivalent of 7.4 million people) thought their wellbeing was affected through feeling lonely, with the research group referring to these people as being ‘locked-down lonely’.
Separate research found that those between 18 and 24 years old were the most likely to be affected by the Covid-19 restrictions.
While these are worrying statistics, and arguably likely to worsen the longer national restrictions are in place, the first UK lockdown did bring about some rare and unexpected benefits, specifically levelling the playing field for the elderly and disabled in society.
“We had comments from new parents who have never felt more connected because, for the first time, they were able to join in the virtual public quiz, particularly from single parents,” said Amy Perrin, CEO of Bristol-based Marmalade Trust, on the Sylo Magazine podcast.
“We've actually had somebody with a disability, who was saying that they are concerned about when lockdown starts lifting, and they have to go back into society because their life feels so enriched and so full at the moment. Whereas actually, being a wheelchair user has barriers in society.
“Also, we've had some older people that we've been supporting in the past, who have felt very isolated.
“We've gone back to them during this pandemic, and they've said, ‘I feel so connected because I've had five notes through the door of people who wanted to know if they could get my shopping, because my neighbours are ringing me every day, and because someone is singing to me at the end of the footpath’. They just feel so overwhelmed by the support they've had.
“So there are some real positives, in what is obviously an awful time.”
The opportunity to rebuild communities
All of this emphases the value of community, something that shouldn’t be given up moving forwards, whatever the future may hold.
For Professor Manuela Baretto, professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter, the current crisis offers an opportunity to build a more inclusive community.
“We have that opportunity now, not later.
“We need to remember all of the people that we now extend our hands to...We must make sure that we continue thinking about those wider, accessible social spaces that give these other people the opportunity to interact.
“I know that there are lots of silver linings and in this situation, but I think we must also not forget that where communities are built, people are excluded."
“We need to be careful and to be attentive now as we look around and see where [society] is failing, where it's not actually producing that strong cohesion that we aim for...and make sure that we continue learning those lessons.
“There’s an opportunity now to build community, to make it more inclusive.”
[Listen to the podcast now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, PocketCasts, and many others to find out how you can beat loneliness, how to help others, and how to play your part in a more equal society]