Most of us get lonely sometimes. Whether it’s because we’re travelling for work, studying for exams, or mourning the loss of someone close, feeling unsatisfied by our relationships with others is something that might be with us every now and again or most of the time. In the words of John Caciopppo, the pioneer of social neuroscience and research into loneliness: “The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people”.
There’s a value to loneliness. It tells us we need meaningful connection; that our innate need for company is not being met by our situation at the time. Just as hunger signals our need for food, loneliness tells us a fundamental need is not being met. Without recognition of these fundamental cues, and actions to remedy their threats to well-being, illness ensues. Humans are social animals, relying on social bonds for survival. We evolved in ways that exploit the survival advantage of being part of a group. We developed large brains to foster social bonds through language because it was beneficial to our survival. Our need for meaningful connection with others is a fundamental part of our being.
Given their fundamental importance, it’s not surprising that meaningful connections with others are beneficial to our physical and mental health, and that loneliness makes us sick. The impact of loneliness on individuals’ risk of premature death is comparable with the impacts of obesity, substance use, poor mental health, insufficient physical activity, or limited access to healthcare. Morbidity is similarly increased by loneliness.
Loneliness is an affliction arising from contemporary society. The fragmentation of communities and retreat into self-interest has reduced the quality of our interpersonal interactions, which have become increasingly temporary and conditional, in place of truly fulfilling relationships based on commitment, trust and responsibility.
The decline in relationship quality is occurring at the same time as we spend increasing amounts of time alone. More than half of all Australians spend more than two hours a day looking at their phones, according to a nationally representative survey of 1,058 Australians, and Australian Census data show that 25% of Australian households are single-person households, twice as many as two decades ago. Social isolation does not equate with loneliness but it is a substantial risk factor.
We have known for 20 years that Australian males are lonelier than females. Women have more personal support and friendships than men, regardless of whether they live with others or alone. In fact, Australian women aged 25-44 who live alone report the same level of social support as women who live with others, but for men, there is a substantial difference. Males living alone, especially those raising children, are the loneliest people in our country.
In contemporary Australian society, women are more likely than men to be the ’managers’ of social relationships1, which may account for gender differences in social support and loneliness. Hence, loneliness in males is lowest for those living with their partner, either without, or with young, children. Upon separation, women are twice as likely to be lonely, whereas for men the likeliness of loneliness is 13-times higher.
There’s not a lot known about gender differences in the effect of loneliness on health. One longitudinal study of elderly German people demonstrated that loneliness is associated with declines in physical and mental health for women (after three years) but only for men’s mental health. A meta-analysis of studies examining the relationships between loneliness and social isolation, and cardiovascular disease, did not find an influence of gender.
Our own ‘What’s in the Way?’ survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,282 Australian men aged over 18, found high levels of loneliness in 15.8% of respondents (i.e. more than one in six Australian men). Only slightly more than half of Australian men were not lonely (57%). One in four men aged 35-49 years (24.2%) had a high level of loneliness, as did almost one in five men aged 18-34 (18.9%), one in eight men aged 50-64 (12.1%) and one in 16 older men (6%). These results are consistent with previous Australian and international studies.
We’ve known about the troubling level of loneliness in our society, and about its deleterious health effects for decades. There’s still more work to be done to understand how loneliness affects the health of different groups in our society, but if we recognise individuals’ loneliness and intervene effectively, we could solve this public health problem in our lifetime.