Loneliness a significant problem for many of us

Deepening relationships may be more beneficial than creating lots of new ones

According to Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health, “researchers estimate that at any given time, roughly 20 per cent of people feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives”.

According to Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health, “researchers estimate that at any given time, roughly 20 per cent of people feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives”.

 

If you’re lonely you might not think it consoling to learn that we experience different kinds of loneliness.

Yet, the information can help us to figure out how to cope with what is, in many western societies, a significant problem.

In a recent paper published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, Philip Hyland (TCD and Maynooth University) and colleagues drew a distinction between “social” loneliness and “emotional” loneliness. Their findings suggest that emotional closeness to a small number of people is more satisfying and, indeed, healthy than knowing lots of people but not being close to any of them.

That in turn suggests that lonely people might do better to work on deepening their existing connections than on seeking lots of new connections.

Their research was based on a sample of 1,839 adults in the US who had experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. The most distressed people in the sample were those who were emotionally lonely, whether or not they had acquaintances.

In fact, they had levels of “depression, anxiety and negative psychological wellbeing that were reflective of a psychiatric disorder,” notes journalist Emma Young in a review of the study in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest.

Every childhood trauma, the authors of a study found, boosts the likelihood of being emotionally lonely in later life

It was sad to read that people (mostly female) with a number of childhood traumas were more likely to experience emotional loneliness and not to be in a relationship. Every childhood trauma, the authors found, boosts the likelihood of being emotionally lonely in later life. Perhaps those who have suffered such traumas have learned to steer clear of others.

What does this mean?

For children it means that assault, intense bullying and other traumas can inflict life-long harm. It also means that we should seek to have good mental health services for people in this group. To cut them loose and leave them to their own devices can be a recipe for lifelong loneliness and pain. Many, I expect, experience homelessness.

People who suffered a number of traumatic events in adult life were also more likely to experience emotional loneliness. This I think makes the case for good trauma counselling services, of which I think we have far too few.

What of those who don’t fit into those extreme categories, but who experience loneliness nonetheless?

Emotionally satisfying

As I suggested above, deepening relationships may be more beneficial than creating lots of new relationships. Maybe a major benefit of meeting lots of people (through meetup.com for instance) is that a couple of emotionally satisfying relationships may come out of it.

The researchers concluded that “in the interests of reducing the burden of psychological distress, efforts should be made to enhance the quality of social connections as opposed to promoting the virtues of larger social networks”.

Loneliness affects all age groups. Older people can lose the person or people to whom they feel closest. Some studies have linked social isolation with dementia or at least have suggested that strong social connections can provide protection against dementia.

Reports suggest that older people with intellectual disabilities can become isolated and I suspect that this might also apply to younger people with disabilities.

‘Lonely in a crowd’

According to Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health, “researchers estimate that at any given time, roughly 20 per cent of people feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives”.

That article quotes Stephen Fry in a striking example of the distinction between social loneliness (not having many acquaintances) and emotional loneliness. He described loneliness as “the most terrible” of his problems. But, he said, “I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.”

Further evidence of the key point made in the research mentioned earlier: if you’re lonely, what you need is not lots of connections but a few people with whom you have a close, emotional relationship.

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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