A 21st Century Problem

It’s time that we were all honest about loneliness. For a long time, society has understood that the elderly are susceptible to loneliness; charities like Age UK have raised awareness of the issue and many people have recognised the problem and sought to reach out and befriend elderly people in their local area. However, it’s not just the elderly who are victims on loneliness, Many of us are also lonely, yet it’s a problem that seems to carry a stigma and few are willing to admit to feeling lonely.

Loneliness is not an issue that has reared it’s ugly head overnight; it has begun slowly, creeping like ivy and choking those in its wake. There are two primary causes of loneliness amongst the general population and I suggest that those under the age of 40 are more likely to experience loneliness.

The first cause is advances in technology, specifically the rise of social media, the birth of the smart phone and tablet technology.

The second cause is changes to modern life. The working day has stretched to exceed the 9-5pm that most of our parents worked and people live further from their places of work and have to commute for longer; both of these things have contributed towards the loss of the traditional community – how many of us actually know our neighbours’ names, let alone would feel comfortable knocking on their door asking to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar? Moreover, not only are we commuting further to work and working longer hours, but many people now have work phones and laptops meaning that work is no longer confined to the workplace. With fewer jobs available and many people, including university graduates, competing to ‘get on’ in the workplace or working hard to ensure that their job will not be the victim of the next round of cut-backs, workers are taking on more work than ever before and completing what cannot be achieved during the course of the working day in the evenings, over breakfast or at weekends.

If we no longer have time to meet up with friends and family, then social media may seem like a Godsend – we have the opportunity to broadcast our news and touch base with people that we haven’t got time to see. However, numerous studies have shown that social media actually increases feelings of isolation and loneliness. If only we could be more honest about what we post online and stop airbrushing the life updates to make everything seem idyllic, perfect and easy.

Every coin has two sides, but with social media people choose to only display one side: the bottle of wine without the hangover afterwards, or the baby sleeping peacefully instead of screaming at 2am. The squeaky-clean and sanitized version of life that so many of us are guilty of broadcasting over social media inevitably causes the viewers of such posts to reflect upon their own lives; my life certainly doesn’t seem as fun/happy/perfect/adventurous as my peers- am I doing something wrong? Feelings of failure often pursue these thoughts.

The other problem with advances in technology, especially apps such as WhatsApp, social media sites and the rise of the smartphone and email, means that we are gradually losing the ability to hold a conversation offline. When is the last time that you called a friend out of the blue, or met up with somebody without compulsively checking your phone every 10 minutes? All of these things have lead to a weakening of social ties so that it is increasingly difficult to get people to commit to social events – they like to ‘keep their options open’ in case something better comes along.

One of the greatest challenges of loneliness is finding a remedy. I’m a married woman in my 20s and I’m not into drinking or partying – where can I find other like-minded people that I can be friends with? I live in an urban sprawl village where one of the only social clubs on offer is the ‘Widows Club’ and my husband and I found that we reduced the average age of the local church congregation by about 40 years. Once upon a time, it used to be possible to make friends in the workplace, but now, in an effort to increase productivity, the majority of business is conducted over email; this means that I haven’t met most of the colleagues that I communicate with on a daily basis at work.

I know that I’m not the only one who feels like this and I truly believe that it’s time that we were all a bit more honest about how we feel on the topic of loneliness in the 21st Century.

Small steps to take to make the world a friendlier place:

  1. Say hello to a passer-by. Make eye contact and smile. They aren’t invisible and neither are you.
  2. Unplug. I’m not suggesting giving up music or videos completely, but if you commute then spend some time without your headphones. If you’re not comfortable talking to strangers then you can still participate in what’s going on around you, like laughing and rolling your eyes when the tannoy announcement says that the train will be delayed due to leaves on the line.
  3. Reach out. Contact people that you haven’t seen for a while and check in with them. Follow up on somebody’s social media post with a text or a phone call. Is there somebody that you want to get to know better? Invite them out for a coffee.
  4. Take time out from social media. Facebook made me thoroughly miserable so 18 months ago I deactivated my account and it was a life saver. Not only did my mood improve because I wasn’t spending hours a day comparing myself to other people(because if you check Facebook for five minutes or so several times throughout the day, this soon adds up), but I discovered a lot more time in my day that I didn’t realise I had lost. If you can’t bear to switch off completely then try taking small steps to change your social media habits – delete the social media apps on your phone to make the experience of ‘checking in’ a little less convenient and be sure to positively engage with your friends’ posts rather than scrolling down your news feed and watching what is going on, but failing to engage.
  5. Be honest. It’s 2017, not 1817, and that means that we are allowed to acknowledge that we have feelings. Be willing to share with others; you won’t be burdening them and they will feel grateful that you trusted them with your emotions. Equally, encourage others to talk about how they feel and if you know that somebody is feeling lonely then make an effort with them; loneliness can easily spiral into depression and taking the time to be somebody’s friend can make a big difference.

3 thoughts on “A 21st Century Problem

  1. Modern loneliness is indeed a problem, and your observations are all true. There may well be fewer opportunities for regular face-to-face contact with others in the 21st century, yet I feel that loneliness has always been there and is an age old problem. It is only as we grow and develop as individuals, making our own niche in the world, learning independence and self reliance that we can begin to realise that its the same for everyone.
    Even before social media, magazines and TV programmes painted a false impression of the fun that everyone else was having. It’s always been easy to wonder why the friendship groups of ‘Friends’ or ‘Sex in the City’ are so hard to find. Endless articles about the perfect little black dress for the party season simply serve as a reminder that we haven’t actually been invited to any parties. But are we the only ones? Of course not. Probably the majority of people would admit to feeling lonely at some point in their lives. There are so many opportunities to beat loneliness, and your list is a really good start. I would add four more ideas.
    1. Join a group that reflects your interest, be it a book club, knitting group, film club. If one doesn’t exist, start one! Local pubs ad garden centres are good places that are often willing to host groups. You do not have to drink alcohol!
    2. Volunteer. Surgeries often know of elderly people who need just an hour here and there, and regular contact with another person helps both of you.
    3. Keep an eye out for local events, coffee mornings, charity fund raisers, concerts etc – attend as many as you can, and you will begin to see familiar faces.
    4. Be open to possibilities – one of the most rewarding chats I ever had was with a plump middle aged lady who had stopped for a breather whilst climbing the hill up Jewry Street. I asked if she was alright as her breathing was so laboured, and ended up sitting with her for twenty minutes, talking about anything and everything! Had I been a regular visitor to her part of town I might have suggested a coffee for a follow up chat.
    Above all – relax. Don’t try too hard and remember to listen to others more than you talk. That’s why we have two ears and only one mouth. This advice comes from someone who has experienced severe loneliness several times in their life and finally feels on an even keel with the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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