When the BBC launched the Loneliness Experiment on Valentine’s Day 2018 a staggering 55,000 people from around the world completed the survey, stimulating it the largest analyze of loneliness yet. Claudia Hammond, who provoked 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 chore – 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 drinkings with colleagues after run, 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 big groups of friends, but in the last five years it’s snuck in more.”
Michelle has experienced anxiety and depression which she sees can amplify her loneliness because she find 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 chiefly strikes older, isolated people – and of course it can, and does. But the BBC survey procured even higher levels of loneliness among younger people, and this pattern was the same in every country.
The survey was conducted online, which might have deterred some older people, or attracted people who feel lonely. But this is not the first study to see high rates of loneliness reported by young people: research conducted earlier in 2018 by the Office of National Statistics on paper as well as online with a smaller, but more representative sample also found more loneliness among the young.
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 hours 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 period of transition where people move home, constructed 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.
Michelle has been open about her loneliness and her mental health issues, 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 genuinely felt or had they found a way of coping?
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.
The outcomes will be uncovered on All in the Mind at 20:00 on Monday 1 October – or catch up via the iPlayer Listen to The Anatomy of Loneliness on BBC Radio 4 Image caption Image caption Image caption People from 237 different countries, islands and provinces took part in the survey The type of culture you live in has implications for loneliness People from cultures which tend to put a high value on independence, such as Northern Europe and the US, told us they would be less likely to tell a colleague about their loneliness In these cultures relationships with partners seemed to be particularly important in the prevention of loneliness In cultures where extended family is often emphasised, such as Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, older women in particular were at lower risk of feeling lonely Image caption Nine ways to feel less lonely Download Claudia’s daily podcast, How to feel less lonely Do we have a right not to be lonely? Image caption