A 27-year-old female client tells me: “I feel lonely all the time and more so on weekends. I really wanted to meet friends over the last two weekends but no plan materialised. Some of my closest friends have moved abroad and my other set of friends are so exhausted due to their jobs that all they want to do is sit at home and order food. I miss having light, random conversations with a friend, going for a play, getting dressed up, going to a restaurant for a meal and sharing a meal with a loved one. Dating is tough anyway and now it feels like friendships, finding company is also tough. What can I do to not feel lonely?”
Loneliness has always featured as a concern in therapy sessions. However, in the last three-five years it has become one of the top concerns clients across age groups bring to sessions. Last week, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy released an advisory, Our Epidemic Of Loneliness And Isolation, addressing the epidemic of loneliness, its destructive impact and the healing effects of social connection and community.
As I read the advisory, I kept thinking about how we as a nation are on the precipice of the huge public health crisis of loneliness too. Teenagers, young adults are suffering as they navigate their crucial years, feeling disconnected—and feeling that they don’t matter.
Research over the years has shown consistently that loneliness has an impact on a person’s mood, anxiety and self-esteem. The advisory notes that research concludes “loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29%, respectively”. This data is so telling of the enormous consequences of loneliness. Absence of social connection can evoke emptiness and make people feel that nobody really cares for them, or that they are not worthy of being cared for.
Over the last few years, clients have asked me, “How can I make new friends in my 30s, 40s, and, most importantly, where do I find them?” Although we see ourselves as a collective culture, the advent of technology and the pandemic have led to change. The ties people felt to their neighbours, the feeling of community people had in relation to the workplace, seems to be changing too. There is a huge shift to texting versus calling and staying in touch via social media, which may be impacting how much we really invest in relationships.
We need to begin the process of acknowledging how so many people around us are feeling lonely and disconnected. Second, remember that there are very high emotional, social and even economic costs attached to this. Third, we need to deploy our resources at various levels to build a world where people can experience a sense of belonging, emotional support and feel seen and heard.
With hybrid working and instant delivery applications, there are many people who barely head out of home daily. I often suggest to clients thar stepping out of home for small chores consciously, micro interactions with a vegetable vendor, shopkeeper or cab driver, can lead to a shift in mood and make one feel less lonely and more connected.
Choosing to mindfully schedule time to call friends, planning catch-ups where you meet people, and joining a workout class or a reading club are some ways in which we can invest in social connections on a regular basis. We also need to identify if our binge-watching, scrolling is adding to our inertia and keeping us away from initiating plans and investing in relationships.
While dealing with loneliness requires individuals to make mindful changes, we also need to determine the systemic, structural changes that workplaces, schools and communities need to invest in to help deal with this concern at a societal level. We owe our children and generations to come a better world, where they feel socially connected, nourished and held by the people they love and the larger communities.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.