Loneliness is not the fault of the individual, but it is a phenomenon associated with stigmatisation.
Around 40% of Germans have 1-2 close friends and 33% say they have 3-4 close friends. As many as 11% state that they have no close friends at all and 13% do not confide in anyone. These are the results of a survey conducted by Yougov.de on behalf of the German press agency.
During a conversation with a young woman last week, I once again became aware of this topic. She told me that there are many lonely people in her neighbourhood. In further dialogue, we asked ourselves how we can help people who feel lonely. It is well known that many older people are lonely when their partner passes away, companions move or die, family lives far away or they simply can no longer leave their home. For many young people before the age of 30, loneliness arises during the period of professional upheaval. In contrast, the symptoms of loneliness in people between 30 and 50 are often triggered by a crisis of meaning.
Although there are so many opportunities for activities in these age groups, the statistics speak for themselves. And the statistics also show that only 4% of people discuss their thoughts and feelings with their so-called friends, or rather friendly contacts, on social networks.
One of the reasons for loneliness is our social structure:
- Our forms of society – views such as: only the performance and success of the individual counts
- Our ways of thinking – I don’t know him, her or that, I reject that
- Our structures – we live in small units (e.g. nuclear family) or alone
Can loneliness also be positive?
Firstly, I would like to make a distinction. There are many people who enjoy being alone at times and then voluntarily withdraw and don’t suffer as a result. This solitude can be self-nourishing and positive in the sense of a recovery strategy, allowing you to organise your thoughts or develop creativity. In most cases, however, the term has negative connotations in the sense of a lack of belonging and even social isolation. People who feel lonely hardly manage to take an objective look at the situation and often blame themselves.
The definition of loneliness that is currently most commonly used understands it as a painful and unpleasant negative experience that arises when one’s own network of social relationships is perceived as insufficient or inadequate in terms of quantity or quality (Luhmann 2022). What is certain is that loneliness is a subjective feeling that describes a discrepancy between a person’s desired and existing social relationships. We feel abandoned, isolated, marginalised and alone. And if the situation is prolonged, it can have a negative impact on health. Loneliness is as varied as the people who feel it, the causes that make it up and the individual biographies that shape it. Help for those affected can be found here, for example.
Lonely people often have thoughts like:
- Nobody sees me.
- I am never invited to…
- The others don’t like me.
- I don’t belong.
- The others don’t want me there.
It is well known that our thoughts also influence our feelings and our actions. So if someone thinks “the others don’t want me there”, a feeling of exclusion arises and they act accordingly by withdrawing.
How can we recognise whether people around us are lonely?
Common symptoms include
- unhealthy diet and significant weight changes
- difficulties in dealing with others – superficial or even defensive behaviour in relationships
- withdrawal from familiar routines
- neglect of appearance and self-care
- little to no communication with the outside world
- and others
What are the different causes of loneliness?
Factors can include special life events such as separation from a loved one or withdrawal due to health restrictions. Unemployment, genetic disposition and depressive disorders are further causes, as are the personality traits listed below:
- lack of self-esteem
- fear of rejection
- negative thoughts
People in vulnerable life situations are also affected, including refugees and migrants, queer people, single parents, family carers and people with disabilities. Here, language, physical and time barriers are the causes of loneliness.
Further information on this topic can be found on the website of the Loneliness Competence Network.
The downward spiral of loneliness
In cases of chronic loneliness, people often fall into a downward spiral of negative thought and behaviour patterns that reinforce their loneliness. When we feel lonely, we tend to avoid social encounters and also perceive them in a distorted way. We feel rejected or negatively judged by the statements or actions of our fellow human beings, even if they didn’t mean it that way, and remember this (one) aspect of an encounter above all. One problem with loneliness is that, in response to it, we withdraw further or behave in a hostile manner, which means that those around us suddenly perceive us negatively. The result: the environment turns away. This in turn increases our feelings of loneliness and makes us feel helpless and worthless.
Let’s take a look at an example here:
Person A is new to a job and has just moved to a new city. At work, she overhears her colleagues talking and making appointments for the evening. Since she is not addressed, she thinks “I am not welcome because I am…”. Many conceivable insertions are possible here. …unattractive, …stupid, …older, …not entertaining etc.
It is A’s personal view of things and himself. The group of colleagues has not yet been approached by A. and assumed that there was no interest or the group did not even think about it and would have been happy to be approached openly by A.. A. gets into a negative thought spiral due to the behaviour of the group and finds more and more “evidence” for this assumption over time. The next time, A. is approached and then reacts defiantly and refuses. After that, A. is not approached by the group again.
To get out of such a vicious circle yourself, you need communication and the courage and trust in yourself and other people.
As we have seen in the example above, a major cause of loneliness lies in our own thinking. Because if we don’t feel like we have anyone to share our thoughts and feelings with, this promotes loneliness. Some people even tend to be overconfident and arrogant during this phase in order to distract from their lack of self-confidence. Tentative attempts that are not understood by the other person as a desired attempt to make contact will result in cancellations and further uncertainty.
As long as the lonely person has not already slipped into depression and only therapeutic programmes can help, we can do a lot together as a society to prevent this from happening.
What can WE do?
This is not a guide on what the lonely person could do, but rather an outline of how we as an environment and community can bring the many lonely people back into our midst. Explicitly, I really mean undertaking in the sense of co-creative actions. We as a society, and this is a concern for us at WeMaCo, must learn to live together again in the future. We have consciously filled urban and personal transformation with our centring thought from I to You to We. We take a systemic view of transformation.
As well as offering coaching and workshops, for example, we can provide low-threshold services for lonely people so that they can free themselves from their isolation and regain a sense of being needed, of being part of the community. With this strengthened feeling, your thoughts will also change. People think: “I am worth something in this society” and “I have found new relationships again” or even “I am needed and can make a contribution”. What do we mean by low-threshold offers?
…there’s a street party on your doorstep.
…in your block of flats, free games evenings, cooking together or similar are offered in a common room.
…there is a community garden in which you can participate.
…we organise reading or music evenings in the neighbourhood.
…sporting activity takes place in the city park for those interested.
…you can offer language lessons in exchange for childcare, for example.
What can you contribute?
Many of these things already exist and have already brought many people together and brought them out of their loneliness. Take the wheel now and overcome the process of thinking and get into action. Each and every one of us can make a contribution here and all you need is the will and openness towards those around you. Every change is an opportunity. Let’s rediscover old, tried-and-tested practices for a sustainable community future and project them into the future with new ideas and visions. Overcome the bastard of comfort.
Start thinking in your circle of friends about what low-threshold offers could be. Bear in mind that it can start small at the beginning so that the seed is not immediately crushed again with too much energy. Publicise the planned campaign by posting notices so that your immediate surroundings also know about it. Let your little plant grow and get fellow campaigners into the “garden” so that the care (spreading the word, helping out, joining in) is spread over several shoulders. This address is a network that brings together stakeholders.
WIN WIN for all
At best, you will contribute to the health of your environment, experience a give and take and thus achieve that your fellow human beings can participate and make new social contacts and thus start the antidote to loneliness: friendship!