How do we get less lonely?
What strategies are effective at helping people feel less lonely? Katie Haylor reviewed the evidence with Robin Hewings, Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research at Campaign to End Loneliness...
Robin - I am Robin Hewings, the director of campaigns policy and research at the Campaign to End Loneliness, working with policymakers and people making a difference on the ground to reduce loneliness with a particular focus on older people.
Katie - How much do we know about what strategies work to try and help people feel less lonely?
Robin - So sometimes people can be lonely because they don't feel that they are having the social relationships that they want to have with their parents or children or their partners. But sometimes it's more because of not having that broader group of friendships. And so there's some big differences in terms of the kinds of things that you can do about it. The amount of research that's happening in loneliness is going up and up but there's still a lot that we don't know. This is certainly not like something that has been intensively researched for decades and decades. But there are some practical things that we can do.
Right at the beginning we need to work out how to reach people who might be lonely, to understand what their issues are and what it is that's causing them to be lonely, and what we might be able to do to help them because it is very much about individuals.
It might be connecting reconnecting people to existing relationships that they already have but they've somehow or other lost the confidence or they've just got out of touch with people. Sometimes it can be taking people to groups, thinking about older people often think about things like lunch clubs or other areas of things that bring people together around mutual interests.
The other thing we can do and we're doing some work with UCL on this is that psychological approaches can help people to think differently about their social relationships and regain confidence and skills to have the social relationships that they need. Psychological services that can help people improve their mood can help them to reach out and also to have some of the resilience that people might need when rebuilding social relationships, so that if something doesn't go quite right, people don't take that so much to heart that they lose the ability to keep trying. Deepening our understanding of what's going on with lonely people can only be a good thing for tackling what is a really serious problem. It goes right to the heart of what it is to be human, and what makes us feel valued, and what makes us get up in the morning.
Katie - So if you were to give us some top tips for combating loneliness, what would they be?
Robin - As a whole society, loneliness exists in that context, so people who are living in poverty are twice as likely to be lonely than people who aren't. The whole ways in which people can be supported to come together - whether it's bus services in rural areas or having cafes and parks that are welcoming and can help people come together - is really important.
But also targeted action on loneliness by local councils, by the health service and charities also make a real difference to finding people and getting them the support that they need. This is also about us as individuals. We can both try to create a society where it's easier for people to reach out and to be friendly and create social relationships. There was some interesting research recently that people underestimate how much people liked talking to them when they've been talking to a stranger. We should be more confident that people like us and that we can reach out and talk to others.
And sometimes people who are lonely, it’s not the case that they need the government to help them. People can do things to help themselves and to create the social relationships that they need.
If you're feeling lonely, here are a few tips from Cambridge University mental health researcher Olivia Remes...
Olivia - There are certain things that you can do to become less lonely. Because there is this difference in how you perceive the world when you are lonely. You know you think that others are more likely to reject you, that others are judging you and you are more cynical of the world and mistrusting of others. So we have to change our minds if we want to become less lonely and there are some simple things that we can do.
Just simply getting out there and talking to as many people as possible wherever you are. Normally you wouldn't think to talk with some people that you regularly encounter on a day to day basis, like the person checking out your groceries at the store or the bus driver. If you feel lonely chances are that you don't really interact that much during the day. So it's important to go out there and talk with as many people wherever you are. And this won't just help you feel less lonely but you begin to network with people everywhere you go. So that's really important.
Another thing that you can do is to share about yourself. So often people are told that if they want to make friends, if they want to feel less lonely, that they should just ask others questions. And while that is important for establishing that initial connection, it's not enough to make it meaningful. And when you have meaningful connections, that's when you become less lonely.
So how can you do that? Well it is to open up and share about yourself. Say what you like, what you think. Tell stories about yourself. What I've said is based on recommendations by psychologists. It's based on research and when studies have looked at interventions that work for loneliness, they looked at many things, they taught people how to compliment others because they thought “well maybe if they're complimenting others they're going to be better liked by others”. Then they thought “well what if we just simply gave those lonely people more social support” just simply physically added more people around the lonely individuals. But the thing is when you feel like others are coming in to check on you it kind of makes you feel more like a loser because you know that it's not genuine.
The thing that really stood out, that seemed to work, was actually changing people's minds, their perceptions. And this is where CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, comes in. That's why it's important if you feel like you're really low, to go see a therapist and they can help you with techniques and strategies that are tailored to you.
It's really important to be kind to yourself. Don't think “OK how much am I going to change or how much have I changed in a week or in a month?”. Just take it day by day.