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In the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” Paul McCartney asks the question, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Loneliness is a growing global problem. It affects one in four adult Australians at least three days a week.  It can affect anyone of any age. Worse still, one in two are lonely at least one day a week, ten percent feel they lack social support and 25% are experiencing high levels of social anxiety.  It’s also been shown that those living in higher density areas, such as tower blocks are more susceptible to loneliness than those living in lower-density areas. 

It matters because of the significant negative effect loneliness has on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. It shortens lives. It’s been found that loneliness is as bad for our health as the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

September 9th is R U OK? Day. It’s a time to remind ourselves of the importance of social connection and feeling cared about. Take the time to pause and ask, “how are you going, really?” It’s important to ask several times too, especially if you’ve been rewarded with the usual “I’m fine” response and aren’t convinced that’s the truth.

Because 78% of us will answer in the affirmative even when we’re not. Fine, that is.

One reason we don’t tell people we’re lonely is because we feel ashamed. We fear being judged by others as being socially inept. There must be something wrong with you if you’re lonely.

And yet we forget you can feel lonely in a crowd, at work and even in a close relationship. 

In his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” the US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy reminds us that loneliness is a state of feeling disconnected from those around you. It’s not the same as being alone.

As an introvert, I love being in my own company to sit, think and reflect, especially when in a beautiful place in nature. It nurtures my soul and gets me ready to interact with my family and friends. But I hate feeling lonely. One of the loneliest episodes in my life was when I was living in a flatshare in London. I was surrounded by people but felt like I didn’t belong. It was a dark and miserable time.

One of the biggest issues our society will face as we start to learn to live with Covid-19, restrictions ease and lockdowns become a thing of the past, will be the ongoing burden of loneliness and the mental health crisis. The two have been walking hand in hand for some time.

The pandemic has led to a tidal wave of enforced separation that we’re not evolved to handle. This enforced social isolation of not being able to be physically with those we love the most, to hold a hand or share a hug or a kiss causes us pain. While often not recognised or acknowledged social pain hurts every bit as much as any physical pain because it is processed by common neural pathways. While loneliness and social isolation are not the same thing, the effects are similar.

What’s also becoming more apparent is how after having spent time in lockdown, some of us are finding it challenging to reconnect again. There is a reticence borne out of fear, “do I know it’s safe to be with you?” and “do I really want all that social interaction again?” The risk here, especially for those choosing to continue to work from home while living alone or with limited social contact is the reduction in opportunity for face-to-face engagement and a diminution of social skills. 

Studies have shown that having a strong positive intimate relationship and a couple of good friends you can call on when times are tough is vital to our health and happiness.  But’s it also those micro-moments of connection with people we know or recognise or are strangers to us that also count towards creating greater social cohesion and wellbeing.

It’s that flash of recognition of someone you know from your dance class. The eye contact made with the man you see walking his Labrador across the park every day. Or looking at the person behind the till with a smile on your face and a cheery “hello.”

Our need for connection is innate. As Brene Brown reminds us, it provides us with purpose and meaning. As humans, we flourish in the company of others. We are hard-wired to form relationships at a personal, organisational and community level. It has been shown by the world’s longest-running longitudinal study The Harvard Adult Development Study that it is the strength of our closest personal relationships that determines for what makes for a good life and leads to our overall success and happiness in life.

Feeling seen, heard, and understood are some of the most basic human needs. In her TED talk, Susan David shares the Zulu word Sawubona meaning “I see you.” This beautiful context highlighting how social connection makes us feel cared for, valued, and acknowledged.

Nurturing and maintaining our connections is more important to our mental health today than it’s ever been.

Which is why I spend so much time writing, blogging, and teaching mental wellbeing and the role played by our relationships.

Here are some ideas to cultivate stronger connections:

  1. Set the intention to connect and show we genuinely care.
  2. Be interested, not interesting!
  3. Schedule a 15–20-minute conversation with a person you haven’t spoken to for a while. face-to-face or virtual, just do it!
  4. Give the gift of your full and undivided attention. If you’re in a rush, spend five minutes in meaningful conversation and arrange a mutually agreed time to complete it soon.
  5. Switch off the notifications on your phone and switch to silent. Those interruptions dimmish the quality and depth of your interaction with the person in front of you. Are you really trying to show that you’re more interested in your mobile than them?
  6. Be of service. Check in regularly with a neighbour, a friend who has been unwell, a work colleague stuck at home juggling work, home schooling and caring for their ageing parents.
  7. Remember to include yourself in the mix. You matter just as much. So, reach out, send a text, suggest a catch up, a coffee or look up a community group you can be part of.

Loneliness. It needs our urgent attention because when you feel connected, you enjoy greater mental wellbeing, and everything feels better.

This R U OK? Day let’s put people first and choose to spend our time really connecting with those we care about and those we meet over the course of our day. It’s not hard and takes no time at all, but those 15 or 20 seconds of warm and authentic interaction can lift the other person’s spirits as well as yours. 

It might even save a life.

#ruok #ruokday

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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