In National Science Week, join us to examine the science that underpins loneliness with psychology researchers Dr Michelle Lim from Ending Loneliness Together and Swinburne University, and Professor Catherine Haslam of the University of Queensland. They will participate in a wide ranging conversation facilitated by Jennie Sager, Head of the Nextdoor Neighbourhood network and co-presented by the State Library of NSW and Inspiring Australia NSW as part of our series, The Science of Us.
Globally, loneliness is a major public health crisis, particularly because of its impact on health and wellbeing. Loneliness is linked to poor physical and mental health, and researchers warn that social disconnection poses a greater health threat than smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.
Who’s feeling lonely?
“Seeing others in the world who are well connected socially — through their families and friends, as couples — can contribute to feelings of shame and embarrassment when your life is not that way,” said Professor Catherine Haslam.
“Loneliness can make you feel that you’ve failed in life in some way, that you alone have the problem, or that the problem resides in you.”
Loneliness is much more common than you might think. A striking finding from the Australia Talks national survey of 54,000 people conducted in July 2019 by the ABC was the pervasiveness of loneliness in Australia. Only half (54 per cent) of participants reported “rarely” or “never” feeling lonely.
The survey found that loneliness is a particular challenge for certain sections of the community including young people, those that live in the inner city, One Nation Voters and those experiencing poverty.
- Among those aged 18-24, only a third (32 per cent) reported “rarely” or “never” feel lonely. More than a quarter (30 per cent) said they felt lonely “frequently” or “always”.
- Loneliness is a particular challenge for people living in inner-city areas. Compared to people who live in rural areas, those in inner-metropolitan areas were less likely to say that they “never” feel lonely (15 per cent vs 20 per cent), but much more likely to say that they “occasionally”, “frequently”, or “always” do (50 per cent vs 42 per cent).
- A group that reported disproportionately high levels of loneliness is One Nation voters. Nearly one in 10 (9 per cent) of Pauline Hanson’s followers report being lonely “always” compared to around 2 per cent for followers of each of the other parties.
- While 21 per cent of people who earn less than $600 a week said they felt lonely “frequently” or “always”, the comparable figure for people who earn more than $3,000 a week was less than half that (10 per cent).
“In AustraliaTalks’ most recent survey in 2021, we’ve seen loneliness rates increase further in young people. While 14 per cent of all Australians said they “frequently” or “always” felt lonely in 2021 (the same as in 2019), this was true for over twice as many (32 per cent) of those aged 18-24, “ said Catherine.
Research from Swinburne University last year found one in two Australians felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic, with young Australians aged 18–25 reporting higher levels than other age groups.
Loneliness researcher Dr Michelle Lim who chairs the Ending Loneliness Together campaign says it’s important to remember that feeling lonely is a normal part of the human experience.
“Loneliness is really a signal. Our body is saying, ‘Hey, you need something else in your social network’ as opposed to ‘there’s something wrong with you’.”
Why should we be concerned about the impact of loneliness on our health?
“Loneliness, especially when it is persistent, is concerning because it reduces life expectancy and increases your risk of illness and disease,” said Catherine.
Studies indicate that loneliness increases the risk of death more than such things as poor diet, obesity, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise, and that it is as harmful as heavy smoking.
And for older Australians, research shows that the quality of their social connections is around four times more important as a predictor of retirees’ physical and mental health than the state of their finances.
People who are lonely have higher rates of depression, social anxiety, lower quality of life, and increases your risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes.
Why aren’t we talking about it more?
“Loneliness is emerging as a critical public health, social and economic issue around the world,” warns Michelle who says the Ending loneliness Together campaign is leading the way in Australia’s response to loneliness by increasing awareness of this issue – and promoting more effective evidence-based approaches to resolving loneliness across the lifespan.
“Loneliness doesn’t discriminate. It’s an issue that can and does affect anyone and everyone. The good news is that there are simple things you can do to help yourself and those around you,” said Jennie, who with Nextdoor and Swinburne University undertook a scientific study looking into the effect of neighbourly kindness through a global KIND Challenge.
“Small acts of kindness such as providing emotional support to someone else do not cost anything to the giver other than small amount of effort and time could alleviate loneliness for the giver,” agreed Michelle.
How can we stop feeling lonely?
“Every single day across Australia, we see Nextdoor neighbours coming together to lend a helping hand and to combat loneliness at the community level through small acts of kindness,” said Jennie.
“Our research proves that these small, Covid safe, acts of kindness improve mental and physical health and have a knock on impact on things like lowering crime rates and improving test scores. So, to put it simply, connecting with your neighbours can change your life for the better.”
Join our National Science Week discussion to explore how you can alleviate loneliness and help others do the same.
Event: End Loneliness Together
When: 12.30pm Tuesday 17 August
Where: Online via Zoom
Bookings: Register to attend via this link
Presented as part of The Science of Us event series curated by Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia NSW, and co-presented with the State Library of NSW.