In February 2018 The BBC Loneliness Experiment was launched on BBC Radio 4 in collaboration with the Wellcome Foundation. People from 237 different countries, islands and territories took part in the survey. A summary of the main findings:
Loneliness is said to mainly strike older, isolated people – and of course it can, and does. But the BBC survey found even higher levels of loneliness among younger people, and this pattern was the same in every country. The survey was conducted online, which might have deterred some older people, or attracted people who feel lonely. But this is not the first study to see high rates of loneliness reported by young people: similar research was conducted earlier in 2018 by the Office for National Statistics.
There are several reasons why younger people might feel lonely. The years between 16 and 24 are often a time of transition where people move home, build their identities and try to find new friends. Meanwhile, they’ve not had the chance to experience loneliness as something temporary, useful even, prompting us to find new friends or rekindle old friendships – 41% of people believe that loneliness can sometimes be a positive experience. Other young people who feel lonely told us they felt ashamed about it.
– Those who told us they always or often felt lonely had lower levels of trust in others and higher levels of anxiety, both of which can make it harder to make friends. They look inwards and question people’s motives, wondering whether people spend time with me because they want to, or because they feel guilty. There is some evidence that if people feel chronically lonely they can become more sensitive to rejection. You are dealing with so many things alone that when people do take an interest you can be quite defensive. It can be debilitating being lonely.
– 83% of people in the study said they like being on their own. A third said that just being alone for a while makes them feel lonely, and in some cases isolation is clearly at the root of their loneliness.
– Loneliness is worse if you have lost a spouse or a companion who was close.
– Lonely people use social media for entertainment and to connect with people. On the other hand, watching people put up on social media only the fun, glamorous stuff – photos, new clothes, fancy holiday venues – can heighten feelings of loneliness.
– The survey also found that people who feel discriminated against for any reason, like their sexuality or a disability – were more likely to feel lonely. Blind teenagers, for instance, have a bad time feeling left out of chat about boys, music, clothes etc. and are often ignored in class. They can’t make eye contact or use body language. If someone who can see comes into a room they will gravitate towards someone who smiles at them. You can’t smile at someone unless you know they are there. Even an assistance dog is a mixed blessing
people fuss over the dog but don’t engage with the human being.
– people who say they often feel lonely score higher on average for social empathy. They are better at spotting when someone else is feeling rejected or excluded, probably because they have experienced it themselves.
– Sometimes it’s suggested that people experiencing loneliness need to learn the social skills that would help them to make friends, but the survey found that people who felt lonely had social skills that were just as high as everyone else’s. So instead, perhaps what’s needed are strategies to help deal with anxiety.
– The type of culture you live in has implications for loneliness. People from cultures which put a high value on independence, such as Northern Europe and the US, said they would be less likely to tell a colleague about their loneliness. In these cultures relationships with partners seem to be particularly important in the prevention of loneliness.
– In cultures where extended family is often emphasised, such as Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, older women in particular were at lower risk of feeling lonely.
(Loneliness survey, BBC October 2, 2018)
After university and travel in the Americas I went to live in Central London, only to become aware that, in fact, I knew no one there. It came as a shock. I was very lonely and sorry for myself. But after a while I told myself to buck up, and I joined a choir, took singing lessons and joined a group that put on musicals. That did the trick. But it was an act of deliberate will.