The opposite of loneliness…

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life” – Marina Keegan

 

This quote is from Marina Keegan, a 22 year old Yale graduate; a young woman with a bright future whose life was tragically cut short five days after graduation in a car accident. The posthumous book ‘ The Opposite of Loneliness’ created by her family became a global phenomena and her reflections on the nature of human connection are wise beyond her years.

 

As we enter the fifth month of the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of loneliness is widely accepted as an inevitable experience for many. Whilst loneliness can be experienced at many points in the life span; the particular vulnerability of older people to the virus means enforced social isolation is likely to result in a disproportionate burden for our older population.

 

Loneliness is defined ‘a subjective and unwelcome feeling which results from a mismatch in the quality and quantity of social relationships we have and those that we desire’. Loneliness is a normal reaction to loss and for many it is transitory, for example, my son (aged 17) and daughter (aged 20) were here with us at home during lockdown and whilst they do appreciate the company of their mum and dad, they crave connection with their friends and grandparents. For my mother-in-law in her 70s it is lack of hugs that has been difficult. We have had many socially distanced encounters: we sit two metres apart, bring our own cups and tea in flask and we don’t hug or touch. That need for a hug is backed up in the science, a recent study showed that people who are lonely have a lower levels of oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), thought to be important to health.

 

The last ten years has seen a growth in the number of studies which are helping us to better understand loneliness, its causes and importantly what we can do about it. A recent report published by the Campaign to End Loneliness shows how psychology can offer some solutions: cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and positive psychology all can be used to support us to deal with loneliness. And certainly supporting people to have the skills to deal with the negative spirals in their thinking; to be more ‘in the moment’; and to focus on the positive will all help. However, the real key to combatting loneliness is ensuring that people can create and maintain personally meaningful social relationships.

 

The key challenge in the age of Covid-19 will be how to do this when social contact is risky. The importance of digital connection and inclusion has probably never been so important as it does offer some part of the solution to the issue of social connection. An important part of my day is connecting with my mum on FaceTime. It isn’t the same as being in the same room but it does go some way to keeping our connection; at work, I think we all appreciate that we have had TEAMS so we can at least see our colleagues. Technology is fantastic as far as it goes but I think we are all suffering a little from ‘TEAMS fatigue’. There is no substitute for actual contact with others and it will most likely be a long time before we can share a chat and a cuppa and the same space. Marina Keegan’s reflections on the opposite of loneliness ends with: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team”.

Regardless of how we stay in touch, Covid-19 makes us on the same team and can be there for each other.

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