The evolutionary function of loneliness is believed to be a signal from the brain to change lifestyle and increase social connections, similar to how hunger and thirst tell us to eat and drink. But, when chronic, loneliness can seriously impact our health and wellbeing.
As a society, we have become increasingly isolated. We live alone or in small family units, and many of us work remotely and alone, limiting socialising to the weekends. We don't know our neighbours. We remain silent on public transport. At the shops, we use the self-checkout. Children no longer play in the streets, and many don’t have access to parks.
We are social animals that thrive on connection with others and sharing a mutual purpose. But opportunities for social connection are being eaten away, and the ones that remain are often unaffordable or inaccessible. Loneliness has become widespread across all ages and genders. According to YouGov, 1 in 10 adults in the UK don’t have close friends, 1 in 10 have no friends at all, and 14% of 10 to 12-year-olds report "often" feeling lonely. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport commissioned a Loneliness Monetisation Report in 2020, which estimated the wellbeing cost of severe loneliness to be roughly £9,537 per person per year. Now, more than ever, we desperately need community spaces, yet many (limited as they were) are being eroded, with more than 4,000 publicly owned spaces sold off per year.
I myself have felt this impact. I came out of covid feeling more lonely than during the lockdowns — at least there had been a reason for the isolation then. I’d moved to a new town (and country), was living alone, and working remotely. I met people at the pub but found that only seeing them at parties or out drinking felt superficial. I was in desperate need of a real sense of community, belonging and connection, but had little opportunity to find it.
Many towns, villages, and cities now have almost no accessible or affordable community spaces for people to come together with a shared purpose and to get the connection and meaning they desperately need. Historically, churches provided community space, they allowed for intergenerational interactions and brought people together with a shared purpose. But now that many people aren't religious, there's no alternative being provided. In rural areas and small towns, there are almost no communal facilities, and although cities have more opportunities to join classes, events, and other social activities, they are often inaccessible due to the cost. For many people, the only place they have to congregate are pubs, and while catching up with a friend over a pint can be wonderful, we need alternatives that aren’t centred around alcohol, if we want meaningful connection.
Funding for parks is also down £330m a year since 2010 and nowadays many children don’t have parks within walking distance from their homes. Roads have become too dangerous to play on, limiting locations outside of school for connection and play. We hear complaints that children aren’t spending enough time outdoors and that their screen time is too high. But with limited space to socialise, it is unsurprising they are moving online to seek much-needed connection.
Those wishing to reduce their loneliness struggle to find new ways of connecting with other like-minded people. Affordable opportunities are required to facilitate the development of connection and a shared sense of purpose. It is fantastic to see the UK government working to resolve these issues with their Tackling Loneliness Annual Report. There is hope in social prescribing — one of the methods the government is implementing as a result of the report — in which health professionals refer patients to a range of local, non-clinical services to support their health and wellbeing. But without the spaces to enact this transformative method, implementing it effectively across varied communities will be difficult.
Undoubtedly, there is a desperate need for new community spaces, but with housing crises and limited funds, where do we find the space to house community events and projects?
Libraries, for the most part, have become outdated, with many closing, or going largely unused — a shameful waste of resources in the face of homelessness and loneliness. But by turning libraries into community centres with co-working spaces and cafes, making them inviting places to visit, like those seen in Scandinavia, we can keep them alive, while also providing a warm and enjoyable place for people to form meaningful connections.
Community gardens and allotments are another way of bringing people together with a shared purpose. The joy of growing something from seed and being surrounded by nature can have a profound impact on wellbeing, giving a sense of achievement, and boosting self-confidence. By enhancing this with the powerful effect of a sense of community, green social prescribing has a promising future in providing much-needed relief from loneliness.
I dream of community centres with gardens and co-working spaces, free (or at least affordable) art, dance, and music classes — spaces where people are encouraged to move joyfully, express themselves creatively, and learn new skills — all while being surrounded by a vibrant community of people from all walks of life, ages, genders, and identities. Our goal should be to revive community, to put it at the forefront of all we do and in doing so, bring people together and end the burden of loneliness.