Friday, December 8, 2023

Are We Lonelier Than Ever? We Look At The Rise of Loneliness In NZ

We’ve got more ways of staying connected than ever, so why do so many of us feel so lonely? Expanding on a vulnerable conversation started by The Edge Radio Host Meg Mansell, we look at the rise of loneliness in NZ and speak to an expert about how we can increase connection in our lives.

“I started thinking, I don’t know if it’s because of motherhood, if it’s because of Covid, or – and this was the dark place I went to – if it’s me!” says Megan Mansell, The Edge Breakfast Host.

Meg, 32, is describing to Capsule the thought processes that lead her to start a conversation recently on her Instagram platform – where she has 42.5k followers – about loneliness. Specifically, about her own feeling of loneliness and the belief that she didn’t have as many close friends now as she did in her early 20s.

It was a born out of a chat she was having with her husband Guy Mansell, who was arranging a day out with his friends, meaning Meg and their one-year-old daughter, Daisy, were going to have some time just the two of them – the perfect opportunity to go see a pal. But when this free time came up, Meg realised that she had no idea who she could contact to hang out with on short notice.

“Some of my close friends have moved away and don’t live in Auckland or they were travelling. I knew one was flooded under their own work and life schedule. I have a smaller and smaller group of friends – and maybe because I was unable to hang out with them as often, because of motherhood, because of Covid, had they moved on from me?” she says.

“I suddenly felt really, really lonely. I mean, I’m 32 and I just felt like a loser,” Meg laughs. “I have a job where my description is basically to be liked, and I sat there and thought, ‘yes, but do I actually have any friends?!’”

It prompted not only her own soul-searching moment but lead to her reaching out to ask her followers how many close friends they felt they had. It was a specific tier of friendship that Meg was talking about, she says. “I have a large group of friends who I talk to and I like, that I’ll send memes to, that I’ll chat to on Facebook, but when it came down to ‘who could I just text, last minute, with my baby and say, ‘Are you home? I’m in the area!’ I could only come up with maybe two people… and I feel like that number was bigger in my 20s.”

If that resonates with you, then – ironically, given the subject matter – you’re in very good company. When Meg posed that question to her audience, she was inundated with literally thousands of messages from people saying that they felt the same – that their friendship circles had dwindled, for a variety of reasons, and they were feeling lonelier than ever. From the messages she was able to keep up with, Meg estimates that the average number of close friends that people had was between 0 to 2, putting her bang in the middle.

So when did we get so lonely?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Us?

Cathy Comber is the co-founder of Loneliness NZ, a trust that she and Dr Spencer Scoular, founded in 2018. They first began the trust on the back of NZ’s terrible OECD statistics on suicide and bullying, and the “intense loneliness” that people who are bullied and suicidal are likely to face, Cathy says. She was reminded of the seven years she had spent volunteering for Lifeline – there were many people, she says, who would ring up not because they were in immediate crisis but because they were lonely, and relied on the service for human contact.

‘People miss feeling connected more at times when they know others are connecting’

“When I looked into where else lonely people – whose thinking had deteriorated, and overcoming loneliness on their own seemed impossible – might get help, I found nothing in New Zealand,” she says of setting up the trust.

Loneliness is a worldwide problem. In the UK, a Minister for Loneliness was appointed in 2018 – and loneliness is considered a global epidemic in countries like the US, Australia, Denmark and Japan. Since starting the Trust, Cathy says people reach out to them at any time – but there is a particular trend of when they get the most inquiries.

“I see the most reaching out on Sundays,” she says. “This is largely because loneliness is a subjective feeling that relates to expectations and perceptions. People miss feeling connected more at times when they know others are connecting – and comparing themselves potentially increases their feeling of loneliness.” Christmas, she says, can be another very lonely time for many.

This will feel familiar to anyone who has felt the sting of loneliness – it is that much more heightened when you compare your own situation to what you imagine other people’s social lives look like. In Meg’s case, she says one of the reasons she floated the question to her Instagram followers was because she felt so alone in her loneliness.

“I found myself just thinking, ‘Am I the only one who feels like this?’” she says. “It was my husband Guy who said to me, ‘I think you’ll be surprised at how many people are feeling like this.’ I wanted to figure out whether it came from motherhood, or Covid, or age.”

The impact of Covid on our friendships can’t really be overestimated – particularly in Auckland, where casual hang-outs were off the table for over seven months of the past two years. Interestingly, Cathy from Loneliness NZ says that in the initial lockdown, the number of people contacting them dropped, because that ‘team of five million’ feeling really worked and also, nobody was out socialising, so that feeling of comparison wasn’t a factor. But it didn’t last long.

“The increase in loneliness came when the country became divided,” Cathy says. “Anger was followed by loneliness; Aucklanders, for instance, felt forgotten or unwanted – increasing loneliness. Even now, some people are hesitant to socialise.”

When Group Chats Just Aren’t Enough

While messaging platforms initially rushed to fill the gap created by the pandemic, contact on those soon dwindled.

There was many a think piece on this – The NY Times ran a story called Everyone Has Left The Chat and The Cut went a step further, declaring Is Group Chat Dead?. I definitely felt a shift in how the group chats morphed throughout the lockdowns – in the first few, there were Zoom drinks and activities and House Party and a sense of novelty. But by about halfway through last year’s 103-day marathon, it felt like it was less ‘we’re all in this together’ and more ‘I’ll see you on the other side.’ And it feels like that mentality has stayed, even as the lockdowns have ended.

For age groups who rely heavily on social media for friendships, this can have a particular impact. We might imagine that loneliness is a bigger problem for older people, but Cathy from Loneliness NZ says that the information collected from their surveys shows the opposite – those aged 18 to 24 are the loneliest of all the age groups (with the second loneliest group being those aged over 85+).

Loneliness also affects groups of people who are already vulnerable – members of the LGBT+ community who can face discrimination from family members, those living with a disability, single parents and people living in poverty, according to the surveys. Groups of people where, for whatever reason, the expected social network is harder to access consistently.

The Impact Of Motherhood On Friendships

When you consider some of the factors involved here – lack of money, lack of time and a higher than average amount of time spent home alone, you could also argue that early motherhood can fit the loneliness description for some parents. Suddenly, your daily routine has completely changed and more often than not, you’re spending the majority of your days with a small human who can’t communicate with you – and that shift can be both disconcerting and profoundly isolating.

When asked how she coped with the first 12 months of motherhood, Meg laughs. “I don’t know – ask me in a year!” she laughs. “I don’t know how to get out the other side – I don’t know how to remake those friendship or how to reach out. I know that I should, and I know that these friends probably want to hang out with me too… it’s just that feeling you get when you don’t do something for so long, it seems a lot scarier than it is.”

Part of this is because our protective little brain can treat loneliness in the same way it treats a threat, Cathy says, citing a theory called The Loneliness Model. “When we are so alert looking for who might harm us, we expect more negative social interactions and we remember more negative social information,” she says, noting that in more extreme and prolonged examples, The Loneliness Model suggests loneliness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“Lonely people actively distance themselves from those who are actually friendly; and worse, they believe that the other person has socially withdrawn and so it’s out of their control. This self-reinforcing loneliness loop brings with it feelings of hostility, stress, anxiety, pessimism and low self-esteem.”

Social Media As A Double-Edged Tool Of Connection

Social media can play a double-edged sword in this lonely time – it’s a form of connection for many, but it can also be a place of competitiveness and perfection; as Meg says, it’s literally a “highlights reel” of someone’s life.

“And everyone’s highlights – most of the time – are when you’re hanging out with friends, so it looks like you’re always doing it, whereas really it’s a throwback or you’re posting because you’re like ‘oh my god, I need to show that I’m out!’”

Meg says she found Instagram very helpful as a tool to reach other parents who were in the same exhausted boat as her.

“It helped me feel less lonely when it came to lack of lack of sleep or finding life difficult. If I wrote a simple question or said, ‘Hey, I’m struggling today – my house is a mess, etc,’ then I would, again, get floods of messages from people saying they felt the same way. And that really helped me – but it doesn’t help the loneliness I feel in my actual life.”

Leading with your vulnerability, rather than your fear, can be a key way of finding connection, Cathy from Loneliness NZ says, particularly in a group environment. “Ideally, if each person takes responsibility for being out of their comfort zone, and genuinely looks for the positive in the people in the group, friendships can form. It’s not always easy, but it’s a worthy goal to conquer loneliness and increase social connectedness.”

It was taking herself out of her comfort zone that led Meg to initially start that conversation on Instagram, to be open about the loneliness she was feeling. And it lead to a greater sense of connection – those thousands of messages from people sharing their own feelings, and the anecdotal reality that most of those who answered had between zero and two close friends. Interestingly, this is only slightly less than what Cathy says is an ideal group of close friends. “Ideally you need 3 to 5 quality friendships to act as the preventative buffer against loneliness,” she says.

‘When I realised that what I was feeling was a normal way to feel, I didn’t feel it any more.’

And it’s that knowledge that we don’t need giant social circles to feel complete but also that a lot of people are lacking in close friends that might, ironically enough, help us feel less lonely in ourselves.

“What was incredible about asking that question – and getting thousands of responses – is that I wasn’t alone in the feeling,” Meg says. “And that almost fixed it. When I realised that what I was feeling was a normal way to feel, I didn’t feel it any more. Even though the problem hadn’t gone – I still find myself with limited friends, I still think I’m lonely – the feeling of loneliness went because I knew it was normal. And if we’re all feeling this way, then it probably means that we’re all scared to ask ‘do you want to hang out,’ which means you probably could ask it, because the person you’re asking will be grateful that you’ve reached out too.”

Advice On Dealing With Loneliness

Capsule writer Sarah Lang has already written a brilliant piece on how to make friends as an adult – and it remains one of our most popular reads on the site – but if you’re looking for simple tips to get started, Cathy from Loneliness NZ Trust has some advice.

If You’re Feeling Lonely…

“When we are hungry and thirsty, we need to find what’s good for us and steer clear of what’s harmful or poisonous. When we are looking for social connections, we need to do the same. Find those people that are good for us, and steer clear of those that are bad for us. So we are looking for the people we can trust, who we can share with, who we can work together with. We all should mutually benefit – together making a good team. When choosing people to be with, we want to avoid those people who manipulate us or exploit our feelings. We cannot have good social connectedness with toxic people.”

If You’re Worried About Someone Else Feeling Lonely…

“The most important thing is to not assume. People share more in an environment when they feel it’s safe. Simply talk and listen to them. When you have built up enough trust, ask with compassion how they are managing each day. Try to understand what their world is like for them without rushing to fix their situation. We aren’t looking to compare ourselves directly with them. However, if you can genuinely share how you have felt at times when you experienced loneliness, that might help them identify with you more; which leads to more conversation.”

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