At its most basic level, loneliness is unwanted solitude. However, it can also be a sense of isolation completely unrelated to how many people are around. It’s a feeling that has more to do with the quality of our relationships than our real or virtual friend count. One can feel cripplingly lonely in a crowd and, in many ways, this its worst manifestation − like dying of thirst on a desert island surrounded by cool, blue, undrinkable, seawater.
Psychologists distinguish between social loneliness and emotional loneliness. The former is related to fitting in and feeling like we belong, while emotional loneliness is about separation from loved ones. The 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi beautifully captures the idea of emotional loneliness in his poem, Song of the Reed, which places the reader inside the mind of a flute:
Since I was cut from the reed bed, I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves understands what I say…
Loneliness was one of the issues high on the agenda at last week’s Global Education and Skills Forum, organised by The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
Loneliness and isolation have for some time been assumed to be problems of old age, but a recent report in The National on the difficulties university students in Dubai face making new friends shows that they also affect a growing number of young adults.
A German study published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology in 2016, looked at a nationally representative sample of 16,132 people. It found that the age distribution of loneliness followed a complex, non-linear path, with elevated levels among both young adults and the elderly.
In this age of global mobility, it is common for young people to move away from their parental homes to attend college. Physical separation from family, friends and the familiar creates a perfect environment for loneliness and homesickness to thrive.
Recent research on social isolation suggests that such problems are widespread. In the US, for example, a 2017 survey of more than 47,000 students, undertaken by the Centre for Collegiate Mental Health, found that 64 per cent had felt “very lonely” in the past year.
Loneliness is, for some people, a trigger for depression and anxiety. As an indication of how seriously some nations are now taking the problem, the UK government appointed the world's first minister for loneliness earlier this year. This appointment came on the back of a research report – The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness – that suggested social isolation is an increasing public health concern in the UK, negatively impacting around 14 per cent of the population, or approximately nine million people. Similarly, in an article for the Harvard business Review, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy referred to loneliness as a "growing health epidemic".
The outcomes for health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and major depression are all far less favourable if the sufferer is also socially isolated or lonely. One review study published in 2015, in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, suggests that social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Psychologists suggest that we experience loneliness when we perceive a gap between our desired and actual levels of social involvement. This is known as the cognitive discrepancy model, and within this framework, loneliness can result from several factors. For example, our social involvement expectations might be set too high, or we might lack the social skills to initiate and maintain desired levels of friendship. On the other hand, we might just find ourselves among a particularly unfriendly crowd. Whatever the case, the bottom line is that if our levels of social involvement are less than desired, we feel lonely. As to the rising levels of loneliness in society, fingers are pointing at social media.
The basic solution to loneliness might seem glaringly apparent: get out more and meet people. However, this is often easier said than done. Colleges and workplaces can help by offering and encouraging activities that regularly bring small groups of people together. These could be well-led book clubs, sports groups or mindfulness classes. The purpose of the meeting is sometimes secondary to the face-to-face interaction it facilitates. Of course, would-be attendees need to have time for such activities. In an age where our careers take up more time than ever, some people might say that they are too busy to feel lonely, but it’s important to remember that work is rarely a substitute for friends and a strong support network.
Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University