Imagine a situation where a person can go for days, weeks, months without seeing anyone. This torturous scenario is often harnessed in prisons as a form of disciplining violent and disruptive prisoners as well as for ensuring staff and fellow prisoner safety. Worryingly, it is increasingly becoming a situation that many ordinary people are finding themselves in up and down the country.
The numbers surrounding loneliness are worrying. It is estimated that over 40% of us will experience loneliness at some point in our lives. There is a strong association between loneliness and age. According to Age UK, there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, half a million older people go at least 5 or 6 days without seeing or speaking to anyone at all and the television is the main company for approximately two fifths of all older people.
While it is widely perceived to be problem in older generations, it is in fact a multi-age issue, with 9 million people in the UK of all ages either feeling often, or always lonely, with the highest proportion being 16-24 year olds.
In an economic sense, it’s been estimated that loneliness and disconnected communities cost the UK economy £32 billion every year. When it comes to our health, chronic loneliness is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, worse for you than obesity and increases the risk of heart disease and your overall risk of an early death. Unsurprisingly, it is also bad for our mental health. Isolated people are often trapped in a vicious circle of having a mental health problem causing loneliness, and loneliness worsening their mental health.
It is becoming an increasingly large challenge facing our society, and policy makers and the health and social care sector are starting to take notice.
But what about the psychology behind loneliness? Before developing and implementing policies that can tackle this societal challenge, it is important to understand the psychology behind loneliness, and how humans interact.
Research by the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Group at the Department of Experimental Psychology has been investigating human relationships for over two decades at both an individual human bonding level, and large scale community social cohesions.
Researching social psychology involves navigating a branch of complexities in human behaviour that are dynamic, unpredictable and depend on highly refined levels of cognition and social skills e.g. empathy.
Some interesting findings from a study have found that support networks and friendship circles have different roles between men and women. Whereas men seem to make a sharp distinction between sexual relationships and their wider social networks, female social worlds seem to be more integrated: you can still see these clusters but there's more overlap between them, suggesting differences in how men and women create and maintain their social networks. This could have implications on the way inclusion and community building activities are designed between men and women, which could create a more tailored approach in alleviating loneliness and isolation in men and women.
The lab have also spent a number of years investigating various social activities and assessing their effectiveness in forging bonds.
From comparing of groups of singers to arts and crafts group sessions, they realised that quicker social bonding occurs between members of choirs compared to arts and craft group members, signifying that singing is a true ‘ice-breaker’ when meeting new people.
Choirs vs crafts, could the members of the Clapham Community choir be forging stronger bonds than this arts and crafts group in Bramley
The group have also investigated dancing as a catalyst for improved bonding, and results have shown that exertive synchronised dancing causes a large release of endorphins, yielding more positive experiences and enhanced bonding.
For the non-dancers, non-musicians and non-artisans, the group has investigated the effectiveness of laughter, and have shown that laughter adds a significant amount to the capacity of humans to connect in supporting bonding activities.
Laughter, could it be the ultimate social glue as seen here with the graduates of the Laughter Yoga University?
When it comes to looking at loneliness within the context of the digital revolution, the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience group have been investigating the potential social isolation and the levels of bonding between humans whose relationships are more digital than traditional.
So why is this research important? We’re already seeing the impact of this research being embraced to support health and care. As part of the NHS Long Term Plan and Universal Personalised Care plans, social prescribing is becoming increasingly prevalent in health and social care settings.
Where you might have traditionally gone to your GP and received a prescription for medication, patient groups who would benefit from it are receiving social prescriptions. Examples include referrals to classes, choirs, dance groups, walking groups and community groups. This is particularly pertinent to patient groups who are at risk of loneliness and socially isolated.
Given the expanding research that Oxford and the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience group has been contributing to the field of human social behaviour, we could see a vast enhancement and expansion in social prescribing in the very near future.
A fascinating and resonant impact of how the work of social psychologists is helping tackle the challenges facing society today.
 Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316.