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Why are people in the UK so lonely?

Picture this: it’s 7am on Monday when I set off from The Collective Old Oak, my community that I call home. It’s a space where each morning is filled with welcoming smiles and free coffee and tea to start my morning with a glow. But as I venture to the tube station, I can’t help but notice the sea of loneliness passing by; both men and women with dark coloured clothing, eyes lacklustre.

On the tube, pale faces are glued to their phones and tablets. Two carriages full of people, and no one speaks a word – a stark contrast to the vibrant, warm and friendly vibes of the place I call home. How is it that in a city full of culture, diversity and abundance of social activities, we have come to be so isolated?

According to research by the British Red Cross, more than 9 million people suffer from loneliness in the UK. So much so that, following Jo Cox’s commission, Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness. Loneliness is a multi-faceted issue in the UK, with factors including things like imbalanced work-life culture, fear of self-reflection and alone time, the replacement of face-to-face contact with social media, the carrying of psychological baggage, and the inability to unpack as a result of a busy lifestyle or fear of rejection. Of course, these are further exacerbated in a fast-paced metropolitan city like London, where feelings are often seen as nuisances that need to be packaged-up and held within. But how did we sink so far into the loneliness index that we now need a minister to shed light on the matter?

The science of loneliness

Much has been said about the scientific causes of loneliness. According to author, professor, and co-founder of the field of social neuroscience Dr John Cacioppo, genetics is a primary indicator. Secondary causes have been attributed to situational variables, symptoms of psychological disorder and internal factors such as low self-esteem.

How does it look in real life? Well, consider these common scenarios: you break up with partner; move to a new city alone; feel like you are forever single; or silently participate in London’s rush hour commute every day. These all carry the universal experience we call loneliness.

Humans by nature are incredibly social beings driven to establish a social circle and Ubuntu, a Zulu term used to express humanity. This innate behaviour allows us to feel safe and secure in a community and in doing so, exert less time and energy for our survival needs. This also increases our happiness level, which is attributed to an increased level of dopamine in the brain.

It is not surprising that social isolation and rejection, that feeling of being alone and an outsider, can trigger strong emotions such as loneliness. In extreme cases, this can lead to suicidal ideation, mental disorders and antisocial behavior. In their article, Loneliness Affects How The Brain Operates, academics at The University of Chicago suggested the possibility that loneliness may result from reduced reward-related activity in the ventral striatum in response to social rewards. (The ventral striatum is a major portion of the brain’s basal ganglia that operates the reward system – such as food, social acceptance, and love – and which is critical to learning has been linked to loneliness).

A study by Matthews and collaborators found that dopaminergic neurons in a brain region called the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) were activated in response to acute social isolation and thus, triggered the need to establish social bonding. Moreover, neuronal connection were increased following social isolation, which makes the individual seek the social interaction that they craved. The researchers concluded that the activation of the dopaminergic neurons in the DRN was only prevalent in the extremely isolated individuals since they required social interaction the most.

The sociology of loneliness

Aside from the scientific causes, societal factors also play a role in the epidemic of loneliness. We live in the era of technology, where social interactions are formed through screens – via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and more.

Although social media has created positive and global networking opportunities, extensive time spent on our devices and on these social platforms has inadvertently created a false sense of community and rise in loneliness. Dr Grant Blank, a survey research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, highlighted that social media and Internet is a double-edge sword in that it allows for effortless communication with distant loved ones or networks, but poses an issue when it replaces the face-to-face contact needed to establish true bonds.

This also feeds into the narcissism model, the notion that admiration of oneself is greater than the collective whole and thus, creates dissociation from forming true friendships, bonds and a sense of community.

Why is it prevalent in London?

I’ve often wondered why loneliness is so prevalent in a thriving city like London. Having lived in the US, UK, South Africa and having dual nationality (US and UK), I have concluded that it relates to cultural norms.

In places like the US or South Africa, people are actively encouraged to vocalise their thought process and in doing so, collectively share problems and solutions. This is in contrast to culture in the UK, where we are discouraged from early years to refrain from speaking about one’s feelings and maintain a reserved manner.

When the stress that comes with living in a cosmopolitan city like London is combined with a tendency to withhold emotion, individuals become irritable and averse to hearing other people’s problems and showing compassion. This in turn drives loneliness.

In social environments, loneliness also has the potential to catch on. In a study on the idea, Dr John Cacioppo’s found subjects to have a 1 in 2 chance of contracting loneliness by being around others who are lonely – proposing the notion that loneliness may be contagious.

What can we do about it?

A collective-centred living and working model is a disruptive force to combat loneliness. I am fortunate to live in The Collective Old Oak, the world’s largest co-living building. Based on a communal mindset, here there’s a diverse community of people to connect with, convenient perks to help simplify life in the city, and events to experience new things and grow skills.

In addition, I also believe that we need to revamp our education model. Incorporating studies around the importance of community, and programs to raise awareness around loneliness, can help shift us this issue.

When understanding how to shift feelings of loneliness, awareness is key.

For change to occur, it’s vital that you recognise how you feel and make a conscious choice to change the thoughts, attitudes, negative affirmations, or limiting belief systems that have resulted in this sense of loneliness.

There are lots of mental training tools and techniques that can help to identify the factors that are contributing to these feelings of loneliness. These include spending alone time for self-reflection, journaling, seeking coaching guidance, meditation, and creating positive habits like positive affirmations or a gratitude list.

Once this awareness is anchored, we can set a clear intention to take action to reduce feelings of loneliness. You might spend more time forging stronger relationships with those around you, and seek support from friends, family, colleagues, or your surrounding community. In turn, they can help support you on your journey.

I have experienced bouts of loneliness throughout my life.

From a young age, I learned to visualise my happy place and employ the mental training techniques mentioned earlier to keep me sane when life seemed to be falling apart. Moreover, living at The Collective Old Oak provided me the empowerment to face my fears of rejection, and encouragement to pursue my purpose of starting my own business. In doing so, I was able to get on my path towards happiness, fulfilment and success.

I believe it is our collective responsibility to eradicate loneliness and build a community. After all, the secret is not a book, but a lifestyle – centered on community, compassion and collective wellbeing. With that said, I leave you with this parting quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”