5 facts about loneliness and isolation
One in five of us say we often or always feel lonely. Our head of health and resilience policy Olivia Field talks through some important things to remember about loneliness.
Last updated 21 July 2023
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a very subjective feeling and everyone's experience will be different.
You may choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people, while others may find this a lonely experience.
Or you may have lots of social contact, or be in a relationship or part of a family, and still feel lonely – especially if you don't feel understood or cared for by the people around you (see our information on the causes of loneliness).
But loneliness can weigh heavily, making us feel unwanted, sad and craving human contact.
What triggers loneliness? We know that loneliness can be triggered by stress, and poor physical and mental health. Significant life changes also spark loneliness – from stopping work to losing someone you love.
Whatever the cause of your loneliness, here are five facts to keep in mind as you support yourself and others.
1. Loneliness can affect anyone - but everyone can help
Loneliness can affect anyone regardless of age or background. Many people feel they have no one to rely on or turn to in a crisis. Millions of people across the UK feel this way, our research reveals time and time again. This, of course, shows the need for organisations like the British Red Cross to step in when no one else can.
But more than anything, it highlights how much more we can all do ourselves to show the people around us that they’re not alone. That could be as simple as connecting with friends and family over the phone or social media.
2. Being alone will not automatically make you feel lonely
Loneliness and social isolation are not the same. Loneliness is an unwelcome feeling that happens when there’s a mismatch between the quantity and quality of relationships we would like and those that we have.
Social isolation, on the other hand, is a lack of human contact and interaction and, importantly, it isn’t always negative. You can feel lonely in a crowded room and equally, totally satisfied being alone.
But, unwanted and prolonged isolation can have a troubling knock-on effect on our attitude towards others. Eventually, it can make us distrust and disengage even when we get the chance to interact. So finding ways to connect – even from your own home – is important.
3. Our relationships and interactions need to be meaningful and satisfying to truly tackle loneliness
To really tackle loneliness, we must be satisfied with our relationships and interactions, and quality is key. Simply talking or being with people is not an automatic protection against loneliness – living with others or being in regular contact with people where relationships aren’t that meaningful can make things worse.
This means that for some of us, constantly connecting with people over Skype, Whatsapp, Zoom or similar platforms will not always be the answer. Create the space to connect in a way that is meaningful to you (remembering this looks different for everyone) - and don’t feel bad about creating boundaries.
4. Just talking about feelings of loneliness helps
Even though so many of us so often feel lonely, too many of us are ashamed to admit it. A Red Cross survey of 1,000 people found that almost 60 per cent of respondents admitted they didn’t feel confident talking about loneliness. A third more said they’d never admit to feeling lonely to anyone.
Yet, simply talking about feeling lonely, like so many other emotions, helps. The same survey found that people who reported they wouldn’t talk to family and friends about loneliness were more than twice as likely to feel lonely always or often than those who would.
5. Looking after ourselves in general, and those around us, can protect against loneliness
Loneliness is as much about our connection with ourselves as it with others – when we feel good about ourselves, it’s easier to connect. The fact that loneliness is often triggered by significant life changes tells us a lot. These changes, whether losing your job or finding out you have a health condition, come with both practical and emotional implications.
The practical ones are more obvious – being unwell or being low on money may make it harder to do things, for example. Though less obvious, the emotional consequences of these experiences can have an even greater effect: they knock our sense of identity, and often make us question our role or purpose in life. Not being able to connect with yourself makes it hard, if not impossible, to connect with others in a meaningful way. While you’re at home, try to do the things that make you feel like you, stay stimulated, and do things you enjoy.
And don't forget that you can do things for others - whether formally volunteering, being a thoughtful friend or supporting your more vulnerable neighbours. It not only builds your sense of worth and gives you a sense of purpose, but helps protect you against loneliness too.
Coping with loneliness
Are you living with loneliness or social isolation, or do you know someone who is? We can help you connect with your local community and meet new friends.
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