Michelle Lim - An expert view on loneliness
Loneliness isn't new, but it's making news as one of the hottest public health issues of our time. University of Melbourne alumna Dr Michelle Lim (BA 2000, PhD 2009) helps us understand what loneliness is and how we can address it.
Loneliness is touted the next public health epidemic of the 21st century. In this context, the condition is considered a subjective experience of social isolation and is not to be confused with physical isolation or an individual's desire to be alone. Loneliness is also more closely linked to the quality of relationships rather than quantity. So, one could be surrounded by others and still feel lonely, or one could be alone, but still feel happy.
All of us are vulnerable to loneliness because the condition signals unmet social needs and is akin to other human conditions such as thirst and hunger. As such, loneliness can serve as a valuable cue to reach out to – and to rely on – others. This reliance is critical, as it stops us from having to depend solely on our own resources to survive, thrive and flourish.
Unfortunately, everyone will feel lonely at some point. For most people, it's transient, but for others, it can be a persistent heavy feeling. Loneliness can be triggered by significant events such as life transitions (for example, starting university, moving away from home or having grown children leave the house), as well as adverse circumstances, such as bereavement, loss of mobility, or illness.
Both physical and mental health can suffer as a result of loneliness. In fact, the condition is associated with a 26 per cent increased likelihood of mortality, and has been equated to being as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness increases our risk of experiencing poorer health outcomes from decreased immunity, increased inflammatory response, elevated blood pressure, decreases in cognitive health, and a faster progression of Alzheimer's disease. While loneliness is most commonly examined with depression, evidence from large population studies show that having social anxiety also increases the odds of feeling lonely.
What can we do?
While loneliness is a serious condition, there are things we can do to prevent it. First, having strong and meaningful relationships is key.
We all know friendships are important, but conscious effort is required to maintain them. Sometimes it can be too easy to overlook fundamental relationship building skills that keep people close, such as reciprocity and showing supporting behaviours. It's also important to understand that friendships are dynamic and will change over the years – losing and gaining friends is part and parcel of this process.
That said, there are a number of things you can do to ensure you stay connected to those around you.
- Improve current relationships
Making new friends can be difficult, so aim to improve the ones you already have, including your family.
- Turn acquaintances into friends
You interact with people around you every day. Try making an acquaintance a friend by asking more in-depth questions, ensuring these are appropriate to the context.
- Show kindness
Kindness is a way of connecting with others, even if they are strangers. Acts of kindness come with a low chance of social rejection, so can help develop closer bonds.
Volunteering is a great way to meet people and enables you to do things for others without expecting anything in return. By engaging in meaningful and purposeful work, you can connect to your community and improve your overall wellbeing.
- Small talk
Most people dislike small talk and dismiss it as superficial. However, friendly chit-chat can help open up opportunities to learn about others and build valuable connections.
Dr Michelle H Lim graduated from the Trinity College Pathways School in 1996. She is now a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University of Technology and is the chief scientific advisor for the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness. She is considered Australia's leading expert on loneliness and regularly appears on national media.