Feeling lonely? One in four Australians are lonely but we can all do something about it.
Loneliness is a personal feeling of isolation. We can be surrounded by people but still feel alone. Or we can be alone but not feel lonely. It is related more to the quality of our connections than the number of connections we have.
Humans are social animals. When we feel lonely, it is a signal that our needs of belonging to a group or of being truly understood aren’t being met. This signal lets us know we need to do something to form a connection we find meaningful.
The effects of loneliness are increasingly recognised as being detrimental to health and wellbeing. The Australian Loneliness Study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) tells us that lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health profiles than connected Australians. Some of the things they found:
- One in four Australians are lonely
- Just over half of us we lack companionship, at least sometimes
- Quarter of us have high levels of social anxiety – this is worse for younger people than older Australians
- People who are married or defacto are less lonely than those who aren’t
- People over 65 are the least lonely, everyone else experiences similar levels of loneliness. This group reported lower social anxiety and more social interaction than the other age groups.
OK, so loneliness isn’t great, what do we do about it?
The APS tells us to:
- Think positive – when you’re worried about social situations, you overthink it. Don’t dwell on how you think the other person is perceiving you, shift your focus to that person or the topic of conversation.
- Forget comparison – Don’t worry if others appear to have more or better friends than you. Research shows that quantity doesn’t matter. Savour moments of connection whenever you find them.
- Expect change – Relationships and friendships change over time, sometimes you lose touch. Accept change as normal, don’t blame yourself; this helps you adjust.
- Tolerate discomfort – anxiety can lead you to avoid socialising. Understand that awkwardness does not mean you’re doing anything wrong. Keep reaching out and your skills will improve.
- Listen well – Practice listening. Ask questions and really listen to the answers instead of waiting for your turn to talk. Respond warmly through your posture, facial expressions and words.
- Rehearse – If you feel a bit rusty around conversation, spend some time preparing questions you can use when conversation stalls. They don’t have to be complex or ‘brainy’, try travel, childhood, the weather, dogs.
- Say names – Using someone’s name when you know it demonstrates caring. Offer yours. Ask after their loved ones, their pet or pick up on something they’ve said before that shows you were paying attention.
- Go offline – Social media helps many people but it can increase disconnection. Have a healthy offline life as well. Try inviting trusted online friends to an offline meeting in a safe place to build your relationship.
- Chat to strangers – Unexpected moments of connections greatly improve your mood. Share a smile or eye contact with a stranger; chat to someone in a shop. Rise to the challenge of finding common ground with people you don’t know.
- Help – Doing things to help someone else gives a feel-good rush. Create a bond with someone by offering help, or asking for it. Something as little as assistance with a bag or holding a lift door can help people feel seen and cared for.
- Join in – embrace opportunities to volunteer, join in or participate. This connects you to other people, unites you in a shared activity and provides an easy way to get to know people better.
- Reconnect – Reach out to friends from the past. Many people welcome such efforts and the feeling that you care. If you plan a catch-up, try revisiting a place where you shared happy memories.
- Manage stress – Everyone has social situations they dread. Practice simple stress management techniques like breathing deeply and slowly to help keep your stress in check during awkward moments.
- Practice, practice, practice – we can all learn relationship skills. Don’t be discouraged. Remember that social connections are good for you.
If you feel like you need support to build better connection skills, try an eMH tool on Head to Health at https://headtohealth.gov.au/?utm_source=mindhealthconnect&utm_medium=301