When Marc moved to Dubai from The Netherlands, he expected to find it difficult at first, but wasn't prepared for just how far from home he would feel. "I was living in awful temporary accommodation, and felt jet-lagged for weeks," he says. "I didn't know anyone, and struggled with the heat. I started getting up at 5am to roam about by myself. It's embarrassing to think about it now, but I found myself listening to the same song over and over again, and smoking far too many cigarettes. I took a lot of pictures of the city that I can barely look at now."
Loneliness – a feeling of being isolated or disconnected – is something that most people living abroad will experience at some point. But new research shows that it should be treated as a serious health concern. Looking at 148 studies of how loneliness affects life expectancy, academics from Brigham Young University in the United States found that – even excluding deaths by suicide or injury – social isolation can be as dangerous as smoking about 15 cigarettes a day. About 30 per cent of people suffering from obesity are likely to die before they reach the age of 70. By contrast, "a greater social connection" reduces a person's risk of early death by 50 per cent.
"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need, crucial to both well-being and survival," lead author Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad told the American Psychological Association earlier this month. "There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality."
Moreover, the risk is increasing. Industrialised nations like the UAE are experiencing what Holt-Lunstad terms a "loneliness epidemic" as people tend to live alone, marry later, and so on. "It is a global phenomenon – anywhere that has embraced modernity has seen more people become isolated, alienated and disconnected," says Justin Thomas, associate professor of psychology at Zayed University. "I think in the UAE, it can be exacerbated for some expats as they are additionally disconnected from the traditional support networks of family and long-term friends."
And it isn't just newcomers who are affected. Throwing himself into his job at a law firm, Marc, then 26, managed to resolve his problems, moving into a flat-share and forming a tight circle of friends through work. But when he was promoted ahead of a close colleague just over a year after arriving, he found himself being frozen out by his new friends. "It felt terrible," he recalls. "We had been doing everything together, and then suddenly I was unwelcome."
The situation calmed down soon enough, but it's an interesting example of how reliable, supportive friendships can take time to develop. The Brigham Young researchers talk about the "quality" of friendships, something that can be lacking from even the busiest of social lives.
Marketing manager Hannah, 37, found this a particular struggle when she had a baby in Abu Dhabi. "Much like going to college, you make friends fast, but it takes a while to figure out who's going to be more than an acquaintance; someone that you can truly open up to and rely on," she says. "When it came to having children, I've never felt further from my parents and lifelong friends."
Like many expatriates, Hannah felt doubly isolated: lacking a local support network, and unable to relate to friends at home in America, whose day-to-day experience was very different from hers. "Strained conversations where I pretended everything was fine fast became the norm," she says.
Platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which should have helped her to feel connected, made matters worse, as she felt pressure to portray her new life as successful. "I found keeping up appearances exhausting, and it doesn't help when you see friends back home having a great time together. It's easy to not feel part of anywhere at all."
Whether social media is helpful or harmful to our long-term health is not yet fully understood by psychologists, but Thomas suggests that Hannah's experience is a common one. "You can make nourishing connections through social media. However, on the negative side, social media can create the false impression that everyone else is somehow better off, which can make states like loneliness feel intensified."
Where the internet has been helpful is in bringing people together in a physical space – through organisations such as Inter Nations, or the Expats Meetup founded by Raj Dan after he moved to Dubai in 2013. "Expats are special people. They move countries and take on new challenges … they are generally very optimistic people who tend to be shocked to find that, having left their friends and business networks behind, they have to start from scratch," Dan says.
On the other hand, some expats move countries because they are already feeling lonely, particularly after a relationship breakdown, he adds.
Wanting to make friends and realising that others felt the same, Dan began to organise get-togethers through the Meetup platform, introducing people to each other in twos and threes to avoid any initial awkwardness. The Expats Meetup now has 35,000 members in Dubai and 10,000 in Abu Dhabi, who meet regularly at venues such as Mahiki and Societe in Dubai, or Roberto's and Dai Pai Dong in Abu Dhabi (there is also a range of cultural trips, treks and hikes, yacht cruises and holidays on offer). Dan has since made numerous long-term friendships of his own, and attended four marriages of people who met at
his Meetups. He has also exported the idea to 36 cities around the world, with 190,000 members globally.
Yet while some feel that the friendships they form as expats are ultimately closer than those back home, there is still no easy solution to the transience of expatriate life. British journalist Lynn Carratt, 36, found it easy to make friends when she arrived in Dubai to work on an entertainment magazine. "I was lucky that my job was quite sociable and the media scene was fairly small, so after about six months I had built up a firm circle of friends and for a year everything was great," she says. "Then friends started to go home and new people would come and I started to feel homesick. I lasted two years and then came back to London."
For work and family reasons, Hannah decided to stay in Abu Dhabi – but found herself becoming more reserved with new people. "There can be an element of holding back, not committing yourself wholeheartedly to a social circle, because either you'll leave, or they'll leave," she explains. "I've made amazing friends here, only for them to go on to adventures elsewhere, and it's heartbreaking."
So how can we tell the difference between the unavoidable periods of loneliness that everyone will experience while living overseas, from the chronic social isolation that can cut life expectancy? "The key difference is duration and people's beliefs about the future," says Thomas. "'I'm lonely and I will always be lonely' is going to sting much more than 'I'm lonely now, but I know that one day I will be surrounded by love and sincere companionship'."
Despite saying some goodbyes along the way, Marc has now built up a group of
"amazing" friends from inside and outside of work, all the more tightly bonded for being away from their homes and families. He is in a settled relationship and has finally found an apartment that feels like home. Nonetheless, he says, "I do think there's an underlying loneliness in the expat experience".
In light of the Brigham Young report, it's worth remembering that, and trying to counteract it where possible.
Practical tips for building meaningful relationships from Dr Justin Thomas of Zayed University
One thing we can do is volunteer to help other people, best done through a charity. Be the friend to others that you would wish to have for yourself (loyal, generous, selfless, dependable). Offer those qualities to those who need and will appreciate them.
Address underlying issues
If the loneliness is due to social anxiety, get a self-help book such as Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness, by Dr Gillian Butler. Try cognitive therapy for social phobia, or work with a well-trained professional to discuss what is holding you back in social situations.
Don’t be a workaholic
Sometimes when people are forced to stop working for holidays or through redundancy, they feel very lonely because they have no human connectivity outside the workplace. Jobs, like drugs, can mask problems. Routinely review the balance and relationship between family, friends, work commitments, and personal goals and values.
Focus on quality
The old cliché that “you can be lonely in a room full of people” is true: you can be sociable and still be lonely. In fact, that is the worst kind of loneliness – feeling disconnected amidst a sea of faces. Focus on relationships that are nourishing, rather than building a lot of connections.
Beware social media
Social media can keep us connected, but that is not always a good thing. For example, it can artificially prolong unhelpful relationships. It also makes social comparison easy – seeing lots of other people enjoying good connections can make loneliness harder to bear.
Re-evalate the loneliness; see it as the calm before the social storm. Use the “me-time” productively before you are swamped with demanding family and friends. Being alone can be glorious, enjoyable and health promoting.