When it comes to understanding loneliness, music’s pretty much got it covered. From The Beatles to Bill Withers, and Roy Orbison to Radiohead, some of the greatest songs in modern history were written to express and relieve the pain of being alone. Science, it seems, has a bit of catching up to do.
We’ve known for a long time that isolation is bad for us. Accounts of prisoners placed in solitary confinement and questionable experiments revealed the strange ways that extreme loneliness warps the brain. Meanwhile, large-scale analysis of the impacts of loneliness have shown that the chronically lonely tend to have higher blood pressure, are more likely to suffer from dementia and have weakened immune systems. In the long term, being lonely is worse for you than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We know that loneliness is deadly, but what we don’t understand is how isolation affects us so fundamentally that it changes us at a cellular level.
This is a problem. It seems like a loneliness epidemic is looming across the western world, despite social media and the internet making it easier to connect to each other. In the UK, 1 in 10 people report that they feel too lonely; over half of parents say that they’ve had problems with loneliness; and Childline says there has been a 10 per cent rise in calls from children suffering from loneliness. To shed light on the issue, this year the BBC is commissioning its own research and Radio 4’s All In The Mind will be airing a series of programmes based on loneliness at different stages of life. On p48, Moya Sarner investigates how loneliness hurts us, and what science can do about it.