By Dr Rajna Ogrin
Loneliness is a mismatch between a person’s actual social connections and their desired relationships with others that is experienced as negative, uncomfortable, and emotionally distressing (Peplau & Perlman, 1982).
Feeling lonely at some time is normal, however when loneliness happens over a long period of time, it can impact negatively on our health and wellbeing (Courtin & Knapp, 2017; Lim, Eres, & Vasan, 2020).
Feeling lonely is a very individual experience– each person will react to their life circumstances in their own way. However, the research has drawn out that some general population characteristics, health and socio-environmental factors can make individuals at greater risk of experiencing loneliness (Lim et al., 2020).
Research shows that people who are socially connected are more likely to be healthier, live longer and have more positive wellbeing (Holt-Lunstad, 2021).
Social connection is feeling that you belong to a group and feel close to other people (Lee, Draper, & Lee, 2001). Building social connections is done by taking the time to get to know people, and developing an emotional attachment (Dunbar & Spoors, 1995). There are levels of the depth of social connection, described as social connection circles, ranging from intimate circles to acquaintances (Dunbar & Spoors, 1995; Farmer et al., 2019). We usually have a few intimate and good friends, and many acquaintances (Dunbar & Spoors, 1995).
To build social connection, we need to have environments where people have opportunities to interact socially, and these environments need to feel safe and secure. People also prefer to have a choice of where they want to go and what they want to do, in local and accessible spaces (Farmer et al., 2021). Having a range of places that encourage different levels of interaction is important (Farmer et al., 2021). These include bumping or incidental spaces, where the environment offers the opportunity for people to bump into each other, thereby enabling social interaction and the potential for social relations to form. An example of this is cafés at entrances to buildings. While facilitated meetings involve people being brought together by a person, or group for a specific purpose. These provide opportunities for people to interact and spend time with others so that there is increased potential to build connection.
When people aren’t as connected with others as they would like, there needs to be ways that make it easy for them to reach out and engage in their community. Social prescribing can be a way to do this. It involves healthcare providers (and others) referring patients in their care to non-medical activities, such as those provided in the local community by the voluntary sector, usually by involving a connector-type role to help do this (Calderón-Larrañaga, Greenhalgh, Finer, & Clinch, 2022).
Knowing what needs to be in place to give people opportunities to interact socially helps us all to understand what we can do to promote more social connections within our own communities. We can all do our part in building social connection in our community.
Dr Rajna Ogrin who is a long time COTA member and is a Senior Research Fellow at Bolton Clarke. Rajna led an article that was published in an edition of the Australasian Journal on Ageing 2021 called ‘Loneliness in older age: What is it, why is it happening and what should we do about it?’.
Calderón-Larrañaga, S., Greenhalgh, T., Finer, S., & Clinch, M. (2022). What does the literature mean by social prescribing? A critical review using discourse analysis. Sociology of Health & Illness, 44(4-5), 848-868. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.13468
Courtin, E., & Knapp, M. (2017). Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: a scoping review. Health & Social Care in the Community, 25(3), 799-812. doi:10.1111/hsc.12311
Dunbar, R. I., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Hum Nat, 6(3), 273-290. doi:10.1007/bf02734142
Farmer, J., De Cotta, T., Hartung, C., Knox, J., Rowe, C., & Stenta, C. (2021). Social Connection 101. Retrieved from https://apo.org.au/node/314766
Farmer, J., Jovanovski, N., De Cotta, T., Gaylor, E., Soltani Panah, A., Jones, H., & Farmer, J. (2019). Healthy Social Connections: A Multidisciplinary Exploration. Retrieved from Melbourne
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2021). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors: The Power of Social Connection in Prevention. Am J Lifestyle Med, 15(5), 567-573. doi:10.1177/15598276211009454
Lee, R. M., Draper, M., & Lee, S. (2001). Social connectedness, dysfunctional interpersonal behaviors, and psychological distress: Testing a mediator model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48, 310-318. doi:10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.1990
Lim, M. H., Eres, R., & Vasan, S. (2020). Understanding loneliness in the twentyfirst century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 55(7), 793-810. doi:10.1007/s00127-020-01889-7
Peplau, L. A., & Perlman, D. (1982). Perspective on loneliness. In L. A. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy (pp.1-18). New York: John Wiley and Sons.