Loneliness in London (and other big cities). How to connect again
“The purpose of loneliness is like the purpose of hunger. Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species.”
Prof. John Cacioppo (1951-2018)
Lisa, 28 years old, came to see me for therapy because she was experiencing anxiety and a slight decrease in her mood. She was a bright, easy going successful architect, generally satisfied of her London life and with no apparent major issues in her current life nor in her childhood. After a few months of therapy, my client came to a realisation and finally said the words: "I feel so lonely. I tried to deny that to myself but this is what is going on. There. I said it". Her face expressed some kind of relief. The relief we feel when we share painful feelings we were ashamed of with someone.
First, some general facts.
According to the Uk Office of National statistics, 2.4 millions suffer from chronic loneliness in United Kingdom but in reality it is suspected that the real number increases up to 9 millions. One in four Americans feel they have nobody in their life to turn to if they have a problem.
The information I really did not expect though is that younger adults reported feeling lonely MORE often than those in older age groups.
One of the three profiles at particular risk of loneliness is the "Younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area."
Certainly it seems that it does not help to live away from the family as the categories that experience loneliness the most are the ones that typically live outside of a family unit (students that have left home and elderly people who most probably do not live with their adult children or have lost their partner).
For some reasons, loneliness is quite an unglamorous topic but it is also a topic we absolutely cannot ignore.
Feeling lonely increases the risk of mental disorders like depression, anxiety, substance misuse , sleeping and eating problems, Alzheimer’s, among others.
It can also lead to various physical diseases; cardiovascular problems, obesity, autoimmune diseases, just to name of a few. It is undeniably linked to the risk of premature death (including suicide, of course).
Why is it then not talked about more?
Let’s ask another question, also thinking of Lisa mentioned earlier: Who wants to admit that they feel lonely, despite their apparent successful life and their full-of-smiles around the world selfies on Instagram? How many people you know would answer to the question “ how are you?”, by saying: “quite sad actually because I feel extremely lonely?” Probably, not many.
Why would young people, most presumably healthy and fit, feel so lonely?
In the last decades, we came to truly believe that we can be completely self-sufficient, independent, "no strings attached" and that we do not need others to be happy. We can make our own happiness. Some of these messages have been helpful, empowering and partially true: we do not have to be in a relationship to feel fulfilled, we can potentially achieve great things in life without the support from others.
However, that does not mean we can live in social isolation. We need to connect to others and form social bonds.
Professor John Cacioppo whose research on loneliness helped to transform psychology and neuroscience contended that humans were designed to live with others, like most animal species. In the history of humankind, our species has always lived within a community, a group or extended family that would guarantee survival. Humans are social animals , similar to elephants living in a herd or lions relying on a pride to hunt and to protect each other from the attack of hyenas.
Similarly to other species, in the past, human communities were based on task sharing, members had different responsibilities that would contribute to the survival and well being of the whole community and to the protection of the individual.
In our modern society, we have somehow inadvertently learnt to forget that we need a social group to survive.
When people move to other countries to follow their dreams or to escape wars, dictatorship or hunger, they increase their chances to find freedom and hopefully a better life but the price to pay is the disconnection from the community they were born into.
Take London and its inhabitants. It is a City of Migrants - from the rest of UK, from Europe, from the whole world- offering endless opportunities at all levels. What tends to be overlooked is that some basic needs are often ignored: being part of a social community and experiencing a sense of belonging and interdependence.
If there is not an opportunity to respond to these needs, people are probably going to feel lonely, at risk of different diseases and definitely more exposed to depression and anxiety. What makes it even harder is that the less people interact with others, the more they are likely to fear social interactions and rejection. They will learn to escape others and to eventually reduce their attempts to come out of their isolation.
Usually when expats move to London they have high expectations: to start a new life, to have success in their career or studies and to eventually be part of a group or family of some kind.
In my clinical practice, I have noticed that while many expats are satisfied about their professional achievements and love the innumerable experiences that London has to offer, they often feel they have not been able to re-create a social group, a sense of belonging . Undeniably, living in big cities can trigger feelings of loneliness and disconnection but I do believe there is something about London that makes creating relationships a bit harder. According to a survey led in 2017 by Time Out, 55 % of Londoners said they felt lonely at some point , more than New Yorkers, Angelenos or Parisians and compared to only 10 % of the citizens of Lisbon. Is it the weather? The size? The distance? The culture? All of the above? It is hard to know for sure.
Clearly though the urgent question is then how can we try to avoid loneliness? How can we compensate the loss of a sense of belonging? How do we re-connect in a metropolis and enormous concoction of individuals like London?
1. Express your own culture and bring your “Weltanschauung”:
By that, I certainly do not mean you should aim to only socialise with people from your country of origin. It is possible that some cultures, often originated in warm climates ( where it may be easier to find opportunities to leave the house, gather and make connections) are more used to break the ice, chat, express their emotions, have social initiatives.
There is no reason why the same habits, which are also more common in smaller towns and centres in UK, should not be transferred to London: trying to talk to neighbours, inviting them for a coffee, offering help with walking the dog or to carry groceries, saying "HI" when you enter a café or a gym class, asking the supermarket employee how their day has been so far etc.
At first , you may not get many responses, but it is much more beneficial for the mental well-being to talk and try, instead of coming to the sour and defeating conclusion that there is no point in interacting with anyone around us and that we should not even try.
In fact, a study published on the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2014 confirmed that social interactions do not need to be with close family and friends to be beneficial: even "weak ties", casual day to day interactions with acquaintances have a positive impact on the mental well-being.
2. Make eye contact and PUT THE PHONE DOWN
In a way, it is quite ironic how the loneliest we feel the more we turn to our phones and by adopting that solution we actually renounce to make eye contact and socialise with people around us. While checking for new messages from Whatsapp groups, Facebook connections or friends from the other side of the world can indeed give the illusion of instant joy and fulfillment, it does not last long. After a first hit of dopamine, being on the screen consumes our energy and motivation , inhibits the serotonin and reinforces the screen- addiction. Not to mention the negative feelings of social comparison that social media trigger.
An experimental study from the University of Pennsylvania led in 2018, the first of this kind examining use of multiple platforms, shows a causal link between time spent on social media and increased depression and loneliness. The use of screens plausibly prevents opportunities of real social encounters. In other words, we feel even lonelier and less motivated to socialise. Before portable screens made their appearance, we had to endure little moments of inactivity, transition, even boredom that used to facilitate spontaneous interactions among strangers. In an elevator or while waiting for the next bus, people today are almost certainly going to stare at their screen instead of making a joke or looking and chatting to each other.
This suggestion does not entail binning smart phones but giving oneself some rules and limitations on the appropriate times and circumstances for the use of screens.
3. Join group activities
Until recent times, in Western world communities Church often played an important role in gathering people, in offering opportunities to make interactions and to contribute to the life of the community. Nowadays, Church has lost its appeal to many and as a consequence, for some the possibilities for meaningful and social activities have decreased.
While it is extremely encouraging that the Campaign to end Loneliness in UK is addressing the impact of isolation on older people and the effectiveness of group activities for the elderly, it is important to remember that younger generations are also very likely, actually more likely, to experience an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
Joining group activities based on interests or new skills can indeed also make a difference to younger adults, providing at the same time opportunities to meet people, to be occupied and to be able to solve problems, all aspects that help increasing the quality of life.
4. Look Beyond yourself
Helping others has always been very effective in connecting people together. It is beneficial for both parties. It has been proven that helping others reduce stress, increase emotional and mental wellbeing. Apparently it provokes some physiological changes in our brain very similar to when we experience happiness. But how does that work?
I suspect, once again, that it is mainly based on our built-in need to connect and to relate to others . If we help someone we are creating an interaction that had good chances to make someone else happier which will help increasing a sense of self worth and belonging.
Also, kindness is contagious. Kind gestures can trigger echoed responses and if we perceive each other kind and benevolent we are more likely to trust them and attempt to create a connection.
The key to defeat loneliness is of course perseverance. All the above suggestions require numerous attempts and we do not always have the energy to try again.
Tragically, some people also learned in life that relationships are destructive and that isolation is a guarantee for survival. Due to early experiences of rejection or trauma, they may become more self-centered which can be a useful short term strategy but on the long run it becomes harmful, pushing individuals to further social isolation and exposing them to the health risks associated with loneliness..
The fiction "Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine" by Gail Honeyman which was one of last year's bestsellers brilliantly depicts how our society forgets about people who are so isolated and lonely that they do not even use their voice for days as they do not talk to anyone. Eleanor has learnt very early in life that in order to protect herself she must keep her distance from others. She has no friends, she speaks to no-one outside basic two words interactions at work on in groceries shops.
Luckily, at some point of her life she unexpectedly encounters kindness which will eventually change her beliefs and will finally allow her to trust and to connect.
It is worth mentioning that no context works for everyone. In some cases, people may realise they are leading their life in the wrong place for them and they may come to the conclusion that they need to move and settle somewhere else. This does not mean failure but just that they may thrive in a different habitat, more suitable for their needs.
We also need to make a distinction between being lonely and being alone.
Being alone is a necessary, healthy, functional state. It would not be advisable to live in a symbiotic state in adult life, unless you are in the early honeymoon phase of a couple relationship, you just had a baby or you are looking after someone who is ill or with special needs.
People require individual space to be able to grow and evolve as human beings and to discover the true mature Self. Being alone is essential to recharge, process emotions, to organise thoughts and to give meaning to the different experiences people go through every day.
In our life, we cannot escape times of loneliness but when the feeling lasts too long and it is too painful it is time to act. As Cacioppo said, it is a cue , as much as hunger for the physical body, that we have to listen to. It is time to satisfy a primary need: connection .
Loneliness is a sign that we must reach others and /or ask for help.
As a species, we will always need to be in connection to others for our survival and for our physical and mental well being.
Just like the elephants.