Not long ago I was watching a TV programme about loneliness in the UK – and it broke my heart; I found myself sobbing and sobbing as the programme continued. Person after person, of different ages, young and old, talked about the devastating effect that loneliness had on them. And it got me thinking about something we could do at the Happynesshub.
So the team started looking into this area as an initial starting point and the results were unsurprisingly clear, yet sadly shocking.
The unsurprising bit: 50 years of happiness research shows that strong relationships are one of the most important factors that contribute to our happiness. The quantity and quality of a person’s social connections – friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbours, is closely related to their well-being. People with good quality friendships are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping, with lower rates of anxiety and depression too. We’re hard-wired to need to relate with other people.
Brene Brown, Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work said in an interview:
“ We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.”
The shocking bit: in 2014, a survey for the Office of National Statistics found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe. We’re less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than residents anywhere else in the EU, and a relatively high proportion of us have nobody to rely on in a crisis.
Meanwhile, in recent news, loneliness and social isolation have been linked to a 30% increase in the risk of having a stroke or coronary artery disease. Earlier research found loneliness to be twice as bad for older people’s health as obesity and almost as great a cause of death as poverty. Studies suggest that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than smoking and high blood pressure too.
Certainly my experience of loneliness was devastating. When I was unwell and bedbound, I found that the majority of my friends were working, busy bringing up children, or just getting on with their hectic lives. The more unwell I got, the more isolated I became, at times I was too ill to even talk, at others I was probably well enough, but I felt the company of a poorly person was not that much fun.
The isolation was devastating. I was very lucky in that my parents lived close-by, as did a couple of amazing friends, but even then the lack of day-to-day human contact was destructive.
Because it’s not just about close friends. We should also try to connect with our wider community – with neighbours and work colleagues. Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn found that even our interactions with people we don’t know very well give us a sense that we’re part of that larger community. So when people walking down the street smile at us, they’re increasing our happiness.
To this day my Mum will not allow someone we know, even if we’ve just met them, to be alone at Christmas time. “The more the merrier,” was her motto, and I grew up in a home that had an open-door policy, with adopted siblings, grandparents and new-found friends every which way I looked. Which is why I think my new-found loneliness hit such a social being so hard.
Nowadays, when poorly, I try to have human contact. Ironically, the technology that can contribute so well to our increasing isolation, can also be a saviour if home alone. But nothing for me replaces a good old-fashioned visit. My friends know this now, and they do their best to drop by and say hi.
Finally, do not fear if you are one of the introverts amongst us!
A sense of connection is internal according to the research; it’s about having quality interactions that YOU are comfortable with.
So if you know someone is lonely, please go pay them a visit. And if YOU’RE feeling lonely right now, try our Happychat forum. There is sure to be somebody out there, right now, just like you, feeling exactly the same way.
Please click here for further research on Happiness and Social Connections.