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'I'm surrounded by people - but I feel so lonely'

When the BBC launched the Loneliness Experiment on Valentine's Day 2018 a staggering 55,000 people from around the world completed the survey, making it the largest study of loneliness yet. Claudia Hammond, who instigated the project, looks at the findings and spoke to three people about their experiences of loneliness.

"It's like a void, a feeling of emptiness. If you have a good piece of news or a bad piece of news, it's not having that person to tell about it. Lacking those people in your life can be really hard." 

Michelle Lloyd is 33 and lives in London. She is friendly and chatty and enjoys her job - she seems to have everything going for her, but she feels lonely. She has lived in a few different cities so her friends are spread around the country and tend to be busy with their children at weekends. She does go for drinks with colleagues after work, but tells me it's the deeper relationships she misses. 

"I'm very good at being chatty, I can talk to anyone, but that doesn't mean I'm able to have those lasting relationships with people," says Michelle. "You can be in a group and it can be intimidating because you're conscious of not letting people get to know the 'real you'.

"I would say I've always had an element of feeling lonely. Ever since I was a teenager, I've always felt a little bit different and separate from large groups of friends, but in the last five years it's crept in more." 


Chart: Loneliness by age


Michelle has experienced anxiety and depression which she finds can amplify her loneliness because she finds it hard to articulate negative emotions. 

"If I'm in a group I often find myself saying 'I'm great' when people ask how I am. It's almost like an out-of-body experience because I can hear myself saying these positive things, when I'm thinking about how I struggled to get out bed yesterday. It's the loneliness of knowing how you feel in your own head and never being able to tell people." 

There is a common stereotype that loneliness mainly strikes older, isolated people - and of course it can, and does. But the BBC survey found even higher levels of loneliness among younger people, and this pattern was the same in every country. 

Michelle has been open about her loneliness and her mental health, even blogging about them. This is not something everyone feels they can do. The survey suggested that younger people felt more able to tell others about their loneliness than older people, but still many young people who feel lonely told us they felt ashamed about it. Were older people afraid to tell us how they really felt or had they found a way of coping? 

It's tempting to conclude that something about modern life is putting young people at a higher risk of loneliness, but when we asked older people in our survey about the loneliest times in their lives, they also said it was when they were young. 

There are several reasons why younger people might feel lonelier. The years between 16 and 24 are often a time of transition where people move home, build their identities and try to find new friends. 

Meanwhile, they've not had the chance to experience loneliness as something temporary, useful even, prompting us to find new friends or rekindle old friendships - 41% of people believe that loneliness can sometimes be a positive experience. 


The BBC loneliness experiment

In February 2018 The BBC Loneliness Experiment was launched on BBC Radio 4 in collaboration with Wellcome Collection. The online survey was created by three leading academics in the field of loneliness research. 


But what the results do suggest is that loneliness matters at all ages. 

When loneliness becomes chronic it can have a serious impact on both health and well-being. To try to pin down why some feel so lonely, we looked at the differences between people. Those who told us they always or often felt lonely had lower levels of trust in others. 


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