The other day, someone asked me if I was lonely. Well, what they actually said was, ‘You must be lonely’. I guess they meant to add ‘in view of the fact that your husband walked away from the marriage four months ago’.
No, no I’m not. I love being with people – but I don’t need to be with people in order to be, well, whatever the word for not-lonely is. There was an assumption in that statement that without a man in my life I must be lonely. That I have to be lonely. That I need to be with someone. That I’m not sufficient on my own. Bollocks.
What does lonely actually mean? The Campaign to End Loneliness defines it as
‘…a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want’…
There are 9 million people in the UK who are lonely (I’ll rephrase that – there are 9 million people in the UK who have admitted to feeling lonely).
Loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more harmful than being obese. And it seems to be becoming more of an issue in today’s society (or maybe we’re actually getting better at admitting it). All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?
Families are spread around the globe: that ‘natural’ network of relatives, of human beings who were interested in our welfare, is no longer something we can take for granted. We just don’t talk any more. But then again, communication is the easiest it’s ever been – we can Skype to the ends of the earth, for nothing.
We don’t like to admit it – in fact I think we’d rather say we’re depressed or stressed than to admit we’re lonely. Perhaps that’s exactly what we do – all those people going to the doctor about depression may in fact be lonely. And loneliness can lead to depression. And depression can lead to loneliness.
Whichever way round it is, loneliness is seen as some sort of failing. Billy no mates. This makes it virtually impossible to ask for help. No-one wants to say they have no mates.
It makes sense, if you would like more people in your life, to get out there and find some. Volunteer (I do), and join something (I have). Hell, join anything. Seriously, it doesn’t matter. Well, it matters a bit – join something you’re vaguely interested in. But you only have to be vaguely interested. The important thing is being with people.
But, if you find it easy to find yourself a volunteering role, of join a club, you’re unlikely to be lonely. The really lonely people are the ones that can’t do that, for very many reasons.
So here’s another thought. Instead of thinking about how to avoid being lonely, let’s think about how to avoid loneliness in other people. Loneliness is a curious affliction: it’s an affliction that’s best cured by looking for other people with the same affliction, and curing them. That chat in the queue in the supermarket. That smile as you pass. Little things, unremarkable things. Passing the time of day.
Have a think about the people in your life (your relatives, your neighbours, the people you work with, the people you stand in the queue at the supermarket with) and ask yourself if any of them might be lonely. And talk to them. That’s all. Nothing deep and meaningful – just a cheery ‘Hello, how are you?’ Talk to them even if you don’t think they’re lonely, because you’ll never know for sure – no-one will tell you that they’re lonely, or say to you that the sun don’t shine.
You can’t do much to stop someone smoking or to convince them to go on a diet – these things have to come from within the person themselves. But you can do something to help someone to feel less lonely. Say hello to one person on your way to work. Go out for a walk and stop for a chat with someone. Talk about the weather to the person behind you in the supermarket queue.
They say talk is cheap. I say, it’s completely free. They may not be lonely – but if they are, they will feel a little less lonely. And so will you.
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And to those of you who are wondering – this is getting silly now – still no news!!