Academic approach to loneliness won’t find the answer

Yesterday and today (9-10 July) academics and social policy-makers are in Oxford at a conference on loneliness.

It’s vital that we understand more about loneliness, why it occurs, what it does to us, how to define and how to measure it. It’s great that so many agencies are coming together to tackle the problem, and good that it’s getting some media coverage.

I hope that the conference will lead to more radical solutions to tackle loneliness in the elderly – the group getting the most attention – which go further than tea parties and volunteers visiting. Can they find a balance between really effective solutions and dictatorial policies that shove people in directions they really don’t want to go in? It will be very difficult.

The problem, as I see it, is that the entire focus is on external solutions. The underlying belief is that the answer to loneliness lies outside the individual. It relies on other people. My belief is that this is fundamentally flawed. The answer must lie inside each of us.

Otherwise why would people surrounded by others still feel empty and desperately lonely? Why would busy people, famous people, sociable people all feel lonely? Why would individuals with partners and children living with them feel lonely?

There is more to it. There is a simpler solution. Loneliness is not a fact, it’s a feeling. Feelings can change. And they change inside us – emotions are chemical processes in the body, and although they are prompted by outside stimuli, they can be prompted by our own thoughts, and we can react to them in different ways if we are aware that we can choose. It’s about awareness, and finding the connection between ourselves and the rest of life, and it’s about a change in attitudes. Everybody will feel lonely sometimes, but nobody needs to feel lonely for long; life changes such as bereavement, illness or injury, unemployment, migration – all these can create intense feelings of loneliness, but stopping them from becoming long-term is perfectly possible.

The conference will be fascinating, and I’m confident they’ll come up with some interesting and productive conclusions, but they’re missing the point. We need to look inside for the answers, not wait for other people to bring us the solutions.

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5 comments on “Academic approach to loneliness won’t find the answer

  1. Julia says:

    I had seen a notice from the BPS about this and thought of your blog. The conference does seem elderly focused again and strikes me that if there was recognition that loneliness can be experienced by anyone and anytime, that people could be ‘skilling up’ in recognising and dealing with it earlier in their lives. Mentions of loneliness by the gov and organisations like this still imply that loneliness is a disease of the elderly.

    • abbspepper says:

      Exactly, Julia. Loneliness can start in the very young, and once it has a grip it needs pretty radical change to eradicate it. The groups of people of all ages who suffer from chronic loneliness is generally ignored by policymakers, and only when it turns to full-blown illness – physical or mental – does the health service get remotely interested. Then its only solution is pharmaceutical.

  2. Ruth says:

    Well said Arabella, and the longer the academics fuel the belief and expectation that somebody else or some organisation outside ourselves is responsible for our feelings of loneliness, the longer it will take for people to take personal responsibility for those feelings…

    • I don’t think it has occurred to the academics or the social workers that it could be an inside job – they’re too left-brain! The skills can be taught – it’s a simple thing but very profound, discovering your inner world. And the only outside force that’s needed is a good massage…

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