The wilderness inside of us: Loneliness vs social isolation
By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line
In my work as CEO of On the Line, I consistently see strong evidence that loneliness is becoming the greatest public health challenge of our time. In the past two years, we have seen a 200% increase in clients reporting loneliness as the primary cause of their distress when they contact us.
The instinctual fear and negative feelings associated with loneliness can be traced back to humanity’s earliest days – it is programmed into us, just like core needs such as hunger, thirst and shelter. Although the way that we have defined loneliness (and its cousin social isolation) has changed over time, the underlying feeling that unites the two, disconnection, has always been dangerous for us.
Despite the fact that that digital revolution has made us the most connected generation ever, loneliness has grown to epidemic proportions. To tackle this issue with the right solutions, it’s important to understand the difference between loneliness and social isolation.
Loneliness is a distressing experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired. The experience of loneliness is highly subjective; an individual can be alone without feeling lonely and can feel lonely even when with other people.
Isolation is being physically separated from other people and your environment. Sometimes this occurs through decisions we make ourselves, or because of circumstance e.g. doing a job that requires travel or relocation, poor physical health or mobility issues. Isolation is defined as an objective state, where the number of contacts a person has can be easily identified.
The term loneliness seems to have originated in the late 16th century, when it was mistakenly understood as a consequence of geographic isolation. Loneliness warned us of the danger of straying too far from our communities and the protection they provided against enemies, predators and the wilderness.
Over time, we’ve come to recognise loneliness as an emotional state of feeling apart from others, that is independent of geography and proximity to others. It can now be more accurately understood as a feeling of disconnection.
Why is this important?
This new understanding is important because it directs us to more effective solutions. When loneliness was considered to be a part of isolation, the cure was simple – move closer to society. We now know that geographic solutions won’t necessarily fix the problem. Our efforts need to be directed at healing the internal wounds that make people feel disconnected from others.
The problem of loneliness has moved from remote areas into our cities, towns and souls. As Amelia S. Worsley recently noted in ‘The Conservation’, the wilderness that we fear is now inside of us.
What can we do about it?
In my recent ‘what is loneliness’ blog , I briefly touched on some ideas for beginning to address loneliness.
We need to take this issue seriously and address it urgently. Researchers for the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness determined that every £1 spent on a successful loneliness intervention in the UK delivered a £2-£3 saving in costs for the community. This campaign helped government better understand the multi-faceted impact of loneliness and ultimately resulted in the appointment of the UK’s first Minister for Loneliness.
In Australia, similar investigations are underway by the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness. The Coalition’s scientific chair Michelle Lim explains the need for more work: ‘We really don’t have good Australian studies, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now – build the evidence about what actually drives loneliness in Australia’.
These investigations help fill in a small piece of the loneliness puzzle and can help to provide the economic rationale for action, but it’s obvious more research is needed to understand the impact of loneliness and find ways to encourage people to build stronger relationships with themselves, the people they love and the communities in which they live.
With loneliness now recognised as a bigger risk to our health than obesity or smoking, there really is no time to waste. Join me in the campaign to have loneliness treated with the understanding, importance and urgency it demands.