The Lonely Mind
This month, we’re unpicking the neuroscience of loneliness, asking: Why do so many of us get lonely, what’s happening in the brain when we are lonely, and what can be done to help? Plus, we’ll be peeling back the science on some of the latest neuroscience research, with the help of local experts Helen Keyes and Duncan Astle.
In this episode
01:14 - Is gaming good for stress?
Is gaming good for stress?
Helen Keyes, ARU; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University
To shine a light on the neuroscience news of the day, neuroscientist Duncan Astle from Cambridge University and psychologist Helen Keyes from Anglia Ruskin University picked apart a few research papers, with Katie Haylor. First up, Helen looked into a paper aiming to tackle work-related stress, but not in the way you might think...
Helen - So the gold standard is engaging in mentally engaging activities and physically engaging activities and socially engaging activities, particularly if you can combine these. So team sports is something that's really singled out as excellent in reducing work stress and having positive knock on effects.
However, many of us work very long hours and many of us commute, and so the gold standard of engaging in team sports every evening isn't really going to work out for a lot of our lifestyles. The authors here were interested in looking at whether something we have immediate access to all the time, so our phones, whether they can be useful in reducing our work stress.
First of all they had to say what do we mean by recovery from work stress? There has to be psychological detachment. And what they mean by that is you have to not be thinking about work. It has to be a relaxing task. So jumping out of a plane isn't going to do it for you.
And interestingly it has to be a task that involves some level of mastery. So a feeling of gaining a new skill and some level of directly controlling the output. And the authors think digital games actually satisfy all of these criteria. So a puzzle game on your phone for example, they wanted to see if this could reduce work stress.
Interestingly and controversially they wanted to compare this with something that people claim relieves work stress which is practicing mindfulness. And they could have a really nice comparison here because there are quite a lot of mindfulness apps available on your phone. If we think about mindfulness it could lead to this psychological detachment, it's relaxing. It's a bit more iffy as to whether it leads to a sense of mastery and control. I'm sure if you're very good at mindfulness it might do those things. And the evidence in general on the usefulness of mindfulness is quite mixed.
So they brought people directly into the lab in their first study. They brought 45 participants in and gave them a work task that's considered quite stressful. So they gave people maths tasks to do for 15 minutes and then those participants were divided into three groups and they were either asked to play a puzzle game on a phone for 10 minutes, to do mindfulness exercise using an app, or a control condition was to just use a fidget spinner for 10 minutes. Before this task participants’ energetic arousal and their recovery was measured.
Katie - So is that how much energy you’ve got to stick the cooker on and make some dinner after you get home from work. That kind of thing?
Helen - That's an excellent description of that scale. How much emotional and cognitive energy you have available to you and also how relaxed you feel and how in control things like that.
They measured this before people did the stressful task, directly after the stressful task, and then following the relaxation intervention. And they found that participants’ energetic arousal increased following playing the game. So between time 2 and 3 after you've done the stressful task. And then after the recovery period, the game was effective in recovering you, in increasing your and energetic arousal. Whereas the mindfulness app wasn't.
So the authors wanted to take this out into the real world then, and they asked 20 participants over five days to take part in these activities. So full time workers and immediately when they got in they would do these energetic arousal and recovery scales. Half of them would engage in the mindfulness app exercise and half of them would engage in playing a game for 10 minutes. Then do those tests again to measure their recovery.
And again they found that playing the game was much more useful and much more effective in work stress recovery. And interestingly, they found that as the week went on it became more and more effective. So if we think about recovery involving a sense of mastery, or gaining a new skill, this makes sense because over the week participants will be gaining more mastery over the game they're playing and getting more and more work stress recovery benefit from it. However the opposite was true for the mindfulness app people. So as the week went on this became less and less effective for them in terms of recovering their work stress.
Katie - Interesting! As an avid gamer I'm guessing this is a sweet music to your ears?
Helen - This is music to my ears I can go home and tell my husband everyday “it's work stress recovery darling, everything's fine”. And so I think the take home from this really is we can't ignore that the best thing, the gold standard, for work stress recovery is going to be a social and physical activity like team sports. But taking out your phone and playing the game is gonna be a really effective way of reducing that work stress.
And we might controversially ask whether mindfulness is really just trying to do something that a video game already does and does better? And indeed it has been suggested that perhaps we could put this as mindlessness is more effective at reducing work stress than mindfulness.
Katie - I do try and practice mindfulness. I find it really hard. Could it not be that being mindful is difficult and takes longer than a week to master whereas maybe a game is a bit easier to do so you get that sense of achievement?
Helen - It absolutely could. Notoriously mindfulness is hard to master, it's hard to switch off your mind but then that begs the question well why don't we just recommend playing games if it's an easier way to access what we're trying to get at which is is stress recovery and restoration? Why don't we just go straight to the game and skip the difficult middleman?
Katie - Equally the cynic in me has the suspicion that games are designed to be addictive, right? So what if you end up using your coping mechanism too much?
Helen - We should be cynical about this, playing games often involves paying money as well. So there are certainly are potential pitfalls to this. But if we're looking at a purely recovery basis, I think we can feel a bit smug finally (the way mindfulness people can tend to feel a bit smug) we can most gamers can start to feel a bit smug about ourselves too.
Katie - And I can feel less bad for not being very good at mindfulness.
Helen - Absolutely.
Katie - Duncan do you have any thoughts?
Duncan - What’s the evidence on whether a phone app mindfulness tools are as effective as the kind of real deal mindfulness? It could be that what they've basically done is kind of compare a full bodied game with a kind of diet version of mindfulness and the diet version of life that doesn't do anything. There might be other benefits to mindfulness when it's done in its entirety.
Helen - If you have the time to go and do mindfulness training with a group of people I mean that's fantastic it's getting close to that gold standard of going outside and meeting people. And you also mentioned other benefits of mindfulness. We have to take this in the context of the research around mindfulness, so this is a very mixed field. So there are certainly studies that show other benefits of mindfulness and indeed show recovery benefits when practiced correctly which is fantastic. There is an awful lot of studies that show no benefit of mindfulness, and it could come back to what you were saying earlier about how good you are at practising. If this is what's available to people on their phone it looks like games are a better quick fix than a mindfulness app.
Duncan looked at a paper asking whether socialising is associated with dementia risk. Over 28 years, this study has been tracking the lives of about 10,000 London civil servants, asking at various times throughout their lives how much social contact they were engaging in, and they did this thanks to open data...
Duncan - Whenever you are asked about “would you like to share your personal data for research purposes?”, this is the kind of study that that makes possible. So they were able to access the electronic NHS records for all 10,000 plus participants and what they could then test is whether or not there was a significant relationship between the amount of social contact participants had and the subsequent risk of getting dementia. And they found that there was a significant relationship, in particular the amount of social contact when participants were aged 60 was predictive of a lower risk of dementia in later life.
Katie - Does it depend on the type of social contact? Presumably you need to like the people that are hanging around with?
Duncan - [giggles] It’s particularly friends and not relatives. So it depends on how well you get on with your relatives I guess as to whether those fits your question! But mainly social contact with friends rather than relatives.
Katie - Was this regular social contact? Was there anything that could be inferred with regard to length of time or quality?
Duncan - Well, good question. So they only actually have four questions on social contact which they use at each time point. So they don't have massive amounts of information. But yes it's regular social contact, but we don't know too much about the nature of the social contact just that it's mostly based with friends.
Katie - So what can be inferred from this relationship?
Duncan - As with all of these kinds of studies, the big issue is cause and effect. Because we're looking at early social contact and subsequent dementia risk, we often might get us into thinking “well that means that the early social contact is causally related to subsequent dementia risk”.
But it also could be true that say at 60 years old some participants are showing early symptoms of dementia. We think that the underlying pathology might start 10 to 15 years before very recognizable symptoms present. So it could be that the reason these two things are related are simply because some people have earlier signs of dementia and that impacts upon their social contact. That's why there's a relationship with dementia.
But it's certainly exciting in the sense that those who have higher social contacts - so for instance if you're in the top 15 percent on the social contact scale - you'll have a 12 percent reduction in dementia risk. If you're in the top 1 or 2 percent you'll have a 24 percent reduction.
Katie - Those are pretty big numbers!
Duncan - Yeah, my suspicion is it might partly be inflated by this idea of cause and effect but that underlying probably some genuine effect, that having stronger social contact has a generally positive benefit for brain health, and that that then stands you in good stead in older age.
Helen - Is it possible or likely though that a third factor could be affecting both your social activity and your risk for dementia, so perhaps a personality factor could be driving both?
Duncan - I think that's true for some conditions. As far as I know there aren't particular personality traits that are predictive of dementia per say. But we do know that there are other underlying mental health conditions which themselves might then become risk factors for dementia. It's possible and hard to control for, that that might drive reductions in social contact earlier in life. And then also confers a greater risk of dementia in later life, and there's no direct link between social contact and dementia per say.
What is loneliness?
Olivia Remes, Cambridge University
What exactly is loneliness, and how might being lonely change our behaviour? Katie Haylor spoke to mental health researcher Olivia Remes from Cambridge University...
Olivia - So loneliness is not the number of people that you talk to. It refers more to the quality of the relationships that you have. So for example, you could be surrounded by lots of people and feel lonely because you're not satisfied by the relationships that you have. Or you could just have two friends, but if you feel that those people meet your social needs, then you're not lonely. If there's a discrepancy between the number and quality of the relationships that you desire, and those that you actually have then you're lonely.
Katie - How many of us are lonely?
Olivia - It's about one in three people. There have been various studies that I've looked at this and in the UK, 21 to 31 percent of people report that they feel lonely some of the time. But it's not just adults it's also children who feel lonely as well.
Katie - I guess everyone will have been a bit lonely at some point, but are there members of society who are particularly vulnerable to being lonely?
Olivia - Definitely so people who have recently lost somebody. People who have been widowed, if you moved away to a new city this can predispose you to loneliness. It's a very difficult condition to deal with.
Katie - Are there specific behaviour changes that you might expect in someone who is chronically lonely? Because it seems to be a little bit of a vicious cycle.
Olivia - Yes definitely. One of the main differences between people who are lonely and those who aren't, is how they perceive the world. If you are lonely, you are more likely to see the threats in your environment. You're more likely to think that others are judging you during social interactions and this makes you have negative views towards others. It makes you not want to interact with others and to open up.
Katie - Which of course doesn't help if actually what you're craving is more social interaction.
Olivia - Exactly. So it's a vicious cycle completely. You know the more that you think like that, then the more that this changes your behaviour, and then you might start acting colder towards other people and they can feel that and they might think they don't want to be friends with them. It's really the perception. It's not so much what you do but what you think.
17:36 - Can loneliness harm my health?
Can loneliness harm my health?
Isabelle Cochrane, Cambridge University
Trainee doctor Isabelle Cochrane weighs up the evidence around the impact of loneliness on health...
Isabelle - It is reasonably intuitive that social isolation might be bad for one's health, as this state could potentially limit access to health care resources. However it is less clear how experiencing the emotion of loneliness might be harmful. In order to try to measure loneliness distinctly from social isolatio,n many studies you standardize questionnaires such as that UCLA loneliness scale. In this way it has been found that the subjective state of loneliness in itself has a much bigger impact on a person's health than any other element of their social network, including number and frequency of social contacts and the presence of close relationships.
In other words it is reasonable to believe that any negative health outcomes are genuinely stemming from loneliness rather than social isolation. Another difficulty is that loneliness, rather than being static, is a state that fluctuates with time and as one's social circumstances change. Any of us can feel lonely at any time and some people feel lonely most or all of the time.
Additionally there is a well-documented loneliness trajectory across a lifetime, with the highest rates of loneliness occurring in late adolescence, a trough in middle age and an increase once again in old age. There are intergenerational differences in the rates of loneliness, with millennials recently found to be the loneliest generation, much more so than generation X or baby boomers. Many studies of loneliness look at a particular point in time or a short interval, rather than entire lifetime, and therefore it can be hard to draw conclusions about the impact of chronic loneliness versus temporary loneliness, loneliness and young age versus loneliness in old age, and whether resolving loneliness can reverse the associated negative health impacts.
Despite these caveats, there is reasonably strong evidence that loneliness leads to increased mortality, particularly in older adults. Strikingly the effect of loneliness on mortality appears to be as great as that of smoking. It is not entirely clear what the mechanism of this effect is. Loneliness has been linked to a worsening of cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol, which may go some way to explaining this increased mortality.
Indeed, the longer the period of loneliness lasts, the worse these measures of cardiovascular health become. Other research suggests that those who are lonely tend to lead less healthy lifestyles, drinking and smoking more, taking less exercise and seeking medical attention less factors which also worsen cardiovascular health. This might lead us to think that those who are lonely have worse cardiovascular health because they lead less healthy lifestyles overall. But this does not appear to be the case. When studies control for these lifestyle factors, loneliness still emerges as an independent risk factor for mortality. This is now leading onto research into the potential effects of loneliness on a cellular and a molecular level. Lonely individuals show differences from hormone production all the way down to gene expression, in particular in ways that increase the levels of inflammation in the body and worsen the function of the immune system.
Loneliness also impacts negatively on one's psychological well-being, with people with chronic and high levels of loneliness showing increases in all manner of psychiatric conditions including depression, suicide and psychosis. One might consider this a chicken and egg scenario. Is the loneliness causing a psychiatric pathology or is worse social functioning due to a psychiatric condition causing the loneliness?
However there is evidence that measuring loneliness in an individual can predict the onset of depressive symptoms, whereas measuring the extent of depression an individual does not predict the onset of loneliness, suggesting that it is the loneliness that comes first.
In a similar vein, loneliness has also been associated with cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease. It is tempting to think that this effect is due to social isolation with the explanation that fewer social interactions lead to less simulation of the brain and hence less good cognitive function. But once again, it emerges that poor quality and satisfaction with social interactions is much more predictive of the onset of dementia than a low number of social interactions per say. However more research is required to show conclusively whether the loneliness precedes the cognitive decline or vice versa.
All of the above makes a compelling case for us to try to reduce the levels of loneliness experienced by people at any age. However there is no known intervention that can be administered by health care professionals that has been shown to be effective in abolishing loneliness and reversing its effects on a person's health.
So if you do have a friend or neighbour or colleague who you think might be lonely, today is as good a day as any to invite them over for a cup of tea.
23:14 - Hello! Science of socialising
Hello! Science of socialising
Antonia Hamilton, University College London
What can the socialising brain tell us about loneliness? Katie Haylor spoke with UCL social neuroscience expert Antonia Hamilton...
Antonia - Often what we’re interested in is what's different about when you interact with another person. So then we'll compare that to situations where people are doing the same kind of thing but in a context where they're alone.
Katie - What kind of experiments can you do with people, when they are with other people?
Antonia - It's pretty hard to do traditional brain imaging methods. A lot of our neuroscience comes from MRI scanners but in a scanner you are inherently lonely. You're in a small, dark, noisy, tube and there's normally nobody else in the room and you have to stay completely still apart from pressing a couple of buttons. So it's generally an isolated situation.
Whereas when we want to study face to face interactions we use a newer brain imaging method called functional near infrared spectroscopy and that shines light through your skull - infrared light can get down to the brain surface - and some of the light will come back to our detectors, and we can use that to measure the blood flow in the brain. It’s a hat that you can wear with the sensors in it. And while you're wearing it you can move about. You can talk to people. There's an enormous number of contexts where we can start to study patterns of brain activation that we just wouldn't even be able to consider in an MRI scanner.
Katie - What key areas of the brain are involved in making that connection with another person?
Antonia - So the areas we are most interested in at the moment are commonly called The Theory of Mind network. There's a bit called temporal parietal junction it's just behind your ears and the prefrontal cortex, so right at the front middle just behind your forehead. These areas are engaged when you're thinking about other people, when you're sort of imagining what other people think or judging their personality traits. But we also see these areas are very strongly involved in communicating with other people, we’re hoping to find evidence that this network is particularly important for having strong social connections.
Katie - Do we know much about those areas in lonely people's brains?
Antonia - Not really. Loneliness is quite a long term state. Most of our brain imaging studies are looking at things that you can change on a minute by minute timescale. Whereas loneliness as a sort of state of somebody’s life isn't going to be turned on and off on the kind of timescale that we do for brain imaging studies.
Katie - What particular studies are you doing at the moment?
Antonia - We're very interested in understanding face to face conversations, what happens, and what's different about being with a real person compared to being alone. So we're looking at that quite often in terms of the audience effect. When you're being watched by somebody else your performance changes. But it can change in many different ways, according to the context.
If you're being watched by somebody who's friendly and supportive maybe you're doing something that you're confident with and your performance will get better when you're being watched. But if you feel you're being watched by somebody who's hostile or who's judging you and you're doing something difficult and you're anxious about failing, then your performance may get even worse in the context of being watched.
Katie - It's really interesting that you say that because we're living in an era where you can have virtual face to face communication. Do we know anything about whether that affects the quality of that interaction?
Antonia - We have a study we're getting up at the moment on virtual conversations. Mostly, at least when we’re on a good connection, it'll behave in a very similar way to a real face to face conversation. Challenges come because if you're on FaceTime or Skype for example, eye contact doesn't work in exactly the same way, the place where the camera is is not the same as the place of the person's eyes on the screen. And so you don't quite know if the other person's really looking at you or not. And on as bad connection the timing may be bad. You there's a bit of a delay between what you say and what the other person hears. So the quality of that connection is degraded but people can get the same stuff out of it.
Katie - I think I'm very conscious that we're doing an audio only interview right now. We can't see each other’s faces and I'm wondering if when it comes to making good quality social connections can we say that face to face is just better? Do we know that's the case? Rather than chatting on the phone which is effectively what we're doing right now.
Antonia - I think communication can be very effective on the phone but it largely depends what it is you're trying to communicate. If we were discussing architectural plans that would be much harder over a phone line than when we're discussing general ideas, but we know people are very very flexible in the way that they communicate and if one communication channel is closed down by the situation that you're in, people will just make more use of another one.
Katie - From your perspective as a social neuroscience expert, how do you think better understanding the brain in this context can help people who are lonely? Are there things we can take from learning about social interaction and apply them to help with loneliness?
Antonia - We can take the general idea that social interact it is important, that it's valuable and that it really is worth making an effort to make these social connections. I don't think our social neuroscience research yet has an answer that says “this is the one thing to do”. And certainly we haven't got one pill or drug that's going to fix these things because loneliness is very much arising from context and from the way a person's interacting with the world.
But I hope it helps to at least know that loneliness is real and that it can be worth complaining about, and that it can get better if you try to find ways to connect with other people, and having that social connection really is very valuable.
Anxiety and loneliness
Sarah Garfinkel, University of Sussex and BSMS
What can the anxious and depressed brain tell us about loneliness? Katie Haylor spoke to psychiatry professor Sarah Garfinkel from the University of Sussex and Brighton and Sussex Medical School...
Sarah - The data on loneliness and anxiety is the only data that's ever made me cry, because the correlation between people's loneliness scores and their anxiety scores were so tightly coupled, it was almost a straight line. And in clinical research we're used to seeing really really varied and messy data. So to see such a tight correlation I think tells you something really profound about the way that anxiety and loneliness and depression are interwoven together.
Katie - What key areas of the brain do we know are involved in anxiety and depression? And does that give us any inkling of what a lonely brain might look like?
Sarah - You see I think it might do. We see areas that are involved in emotion and bodily processing, so these are limbic areas or the insula which is currently my favorite brain area, which is an area involved when your brain reads out bodily signals, like the pounding of your heart or hyper activation to do with anxiety of the body will be represented in this area. And you see these emotion bodily areas are more active and anxiety and depression. And then conversely you see reduced activation especially in anxiety in areas that are involved in emotion regulation, and regulation in general like the prefrontal cortex.
Katie - Does this say anything about the vicious cycle it can be difficult to sidestep when you're lonely? Because it seems like being lonely can actually make it more difficult to make friends which makes you feel more lonely!
Sarah - You're completely right about this vicious vicious cycle. People can then be anxious and worried about social interactions and then also withdrawal is something that's very known to happen in people who are anxious and depressed.
So I think it tells you something about how feelings of loneliness can be perpetuated. It also tells us something about potentially how loneliness and anxiety and depression can be targeted by activities which maybe target social interaction and helping people feel more included. It can also help us understand the conflicting results at the moment about how loneliness is presented and manifests in the brain. And at the moment there is not a strong consensus on how this looks, but maybe tying it more to anxiety and depressive symptomatology would give us a more solid grounding about how we really know brain changes occur and showing effects have been replicated many times.
Katie - Do you think we're getting lonelier? I'm conscious that loneliness isn't just a problem for the elderly.
Sarah - I think we are. Some of my other work is looking at dynamic physiological responding between individuals. So that is shared emotion in brain and body. And when we're with people and we can see them closely and they're sad, then they will have different signatures of the sadness, for example their peoples will get smaller. And then if we look at them and we empathize with them then our pupils get smaller too. We also have body language that mirrors the emotions of others and this can really help us to feel connected to people and actually maybe we need to be close to people in order to have these dynamic physiological changes to ours to share emotions. And if we're sharing emotions then we're less lonely. We're not just having them ourselves.
And then in the rise of social media and technologies that make us more far apart like us texting and other things over the computer, we're potentially not able to share these physiological signals that allow us to share emotions. And that's actually creating an emotional divide between people.
Katie - Of course some of these technologies are advantageous from the perspective of being able to communicate in a way that you might otherwise not be able to do. Say if you've moved halfway across the world or something.
Sarah - I think it's great to use these technologies and I think that actually it’s something just to be aware of to inform the technology, that maybe we need to make sure that we can see clearly people's pupils if we're communicating with them, see their body language and allow these different technologies to facilitate these sharing signals as the technologies get more advanced.
Katie - One thing I wanted to put to you is I guess the other side of the coin. Some people really like their own company. Is there anything that we understand about any sort of neurological differences or I guess is there any sort of biological component to that. See if you just prefer being on your own?
Sarah - There's some interesting work that's been done in mind wondering. This is something that you can do when you're on your own. And they were looking at the relationship between mind wandering and feelings of loneliness and they found it's what people think about when they're on their own which was indicative of loneliness. So it wasn't time spent alone, it was whether they, when they do daydream, do they think about people who are close to them or do they think about people who are not close to them. You can be alone but still have in mind people you care about. So that's one thing. But you're right. Loneliness questionnaires ask how lonely people feel. They're not looking at objective amount of time people spend alone, because it’s a very very subjective thing. And some people do like solitude and that's absolutely fine. And that's why loneliness probably is best got at by these subjective measures because it's a subjectively felt thing that doesn't necessarily correspond to any absolute index.
35:55 - How do we get less lonely?
How do we get less lonely?
Robin Hewings, Campaign to End Loneliness
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.