Loneliness: A spiritual approach to a 21st century epidemic

loneliness and spirituality

Abstract of presentation given at the Spirituality and Wellbeing Conference 14/11/15

Introductory poem, “Daffodils”, written by William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) and read by Tarquin Shaw-Young


Loneliness has been hitting the headlines recently with the announcement that this potentially chronic problem is as detrimental to our health as obesity or smoking. Research over recent years has revealed that loneliness causes not only emotional and psychological ill effects, but also has a physiological impact that accelerates ageing and shortens life expectancy. And, at least for the foreseeable future, the problem is not going away.

With a growing and ageing population, families living further apart, the collapse of the community and a 21st century society that places value on individualisation and self-reliance, loneliness seems set to grow to epidemic proportions. The effect on individuals can include depression, distorted thinking, maladaptive emotion regulation and physical ill-health, which in turn has a knock-on effect on society as a whole with, for example, additional pressure placed on our National Health Service and employers experiencing the negative effects of lower productivity and higher employee absence.

While improved social connection may be considered the answer, in reality and particularly for those for whom loneliness has become chronic, merely spending more time with family or increasing friendship networks may not actually solve the problem. According to John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, in their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), chronic loneliness can induce feelings of hostility, vulnerability, threat, distrust and fear of rejection, making attempts at social connection at best difficult and at worst counterproductive.

For those for whom loneliness is both the condition and the cause of self-defeating behaviour, it may appear as though there is little hope of change. However, there is perhaps another possibility.

Though research at present is minimal, there are encouraging indications that spirituality and spiritual practices may have a positive impact on loneliness, both in terms of emotional and psychological well-being and positive changes in physiology. My speaking presentation, Loneliness: A spiritual approach to a 21st century epidemic, based on my written paper of the same name (presently a work in progress), is therefore an examination of research evidence, theory and considerations into the role of spirituality in offering a new and welcome approach to loneliness.

© Michelle Drapeau, 2016