First published in 2020
Christmas has always been a lonely time of year for many people but with the increased COVID-19 restrictions, particularly with those who are in Tier 4 areas or those separated from family in Scotland, it is likely to be even more challenging this year. A 2018 study4 estimated that 1 in 3 adultssuffer from loneliness and we know from early indications that this measure will have increased dramatically this year due to social distancing and regional lockdowns.
So what exactly is loneliness? According to Britannica3, 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”. Each of us will have our own definition of what social relationships should look like shaped by where we grew up, what we do for a living and our social media use. This is also likely to vary based on our age, romantic relationships and how much leisure time we have, as well as the quality of our previous relationships, or more pertinently how those friendships ended.
Introversion can feel similar to loneliness but, instead of being a feeling, it is a personality trait with those people being more focused on internal thoughts, feelings and moods rather than seeking out external stimulation. Introverts tend to be more quiet, reserved, and introspective. Unlike extroverts who gain energy from social interaction, introverts have to expend energy in social situations. After attending a party or spending time in a large group of people, introverts often feel a need to “recharge” by spending a period of time alone1.
On the other hand,solitude is the state of being alone without feeling lonely. It is a positive experience about being with oneself. Instinctively this is about choice: you have to choose to enjoy being alone, to not fight against it. Then there is how you approach this time – the activities you do alone, how you create that personal time for yourself. Most people need some time alone during the day – remember the mother of quadruplets who hid in the cupboard for 5 minutes of alone time2. Likewise, embarking on a silent retreat with an open mindset can be a truly transformative experience for many people; for others it is their idea of hell.
The seriousness of loneliness is also seen in how it can lead to depression and speed up degenerative conditions, such as dementia. Therefore, as we head into a winter where we will spend much time indoors alone, it is now more important than ever to understand that our social interactions will inevitably be less frequent and feel more disconnected.
Over the longer term, a key step in understanding your social balance is to understand your personal mission and your direction in life. This will enable you to choose when being alone is the right thing for you and when you need to reach out to other people.
Practical guidance for managing loneliness:
- At work – Employers have a responsibility to actively monitor and support the wellbeing of their employees during this time. However, if your workplace is less than forthcoming with assistance, there are some key actions you can take to stave off isolation. Consider your existing relationships and how you can maintain and enhance these during the course of the pandemic. Take the time to ask how your colleagues are at the start of digital meetings and make a point of listening to the responses. Consider your responsibilities as a mentor and manager, and what you can do to foster engagement between your teams.
- Online – Social media thus far has thrived on making people feel that everyone else is having a better time than they are. We know social media is changing the way our minds work – people are becoming far more cautious in their actions and are less likely to enter romantic relationships. Therefore, make sure you perform a regular audit of the accounts you follow and remove anyone who doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. Make sure you are balancing the platform interactions with your friends with more direct forms of communication. Lastly, keep reminding yourself that what people post online is usually their highlights reel and rarely reflects reality.
- At home – Whilst the novelty of digital house parties (thankfully) wore off during the first phase of lockdown, there are still a lot of practical things you can be doing. Make sure you are checking in regularly on both your close friends and those who you may not have spoken to for some time. If you live with people, make sure you are spending quality time together, talking about how you are feeling and listening to their thoughts on loneliness.
We’d also recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s recent conversation with Vivek Murthy on the loneliness pandemic, which you can find here or on your usual podcast app. If you are feeling lonely, there are a number of charities which are specialised in support those in your position: