The results of the 2016 Census are out, and they paint a comprehensive picture of the state of the nation. Emerging from the collection of the country’s data is the discovery that one in four Australians live alone.
24.4 per cent of Australian households have just a single occupant, up from 20 per cent in 1991. Of those living alone, 55 per cent are women. And while females are more likely to become lone dwellers, men find themselves doing so at an earlier age, with the median age sitting at 54 years, compared to 64 years for women.
The increased preference for living alone has become a focus for a number of research projects investigating the impact lone dwelling has on the way we feel – both physically and emotionally.
“As human beings, we’re hardwired to crave connection,” explains Melbourne-based life coach and mindfulness teacher Kate James. “If that social interaction is lacking, which can be more common among those living by themselves, it can lead to an escalating sense of isolation, something studies have found has a profound impact on our overall wellbeing.”
While the physiological effects induced by isolation can include high blood pressure and a lowered immune function, its impact on our mental health can also be significant. One study in Finland found that lone dwellers are more likely than their cohabiting counterparts to receive prescriptions for anti-depressants, with other studies pointing to an increased tendency for stress, anxiety and depression.
“All of these factors not only have a negative impact on how we feel in the present moment,” continues Kate. “But they’re also considered to actually reduce our lifespan too.”
It’s a revelation that makes recognising the onset of loneliness even more important, but not necessarily easier. Social isolation can often be a vicious cycle. The lonelier we feel, the more our self-confidence deteriorates, which inevitably makes us more likely to withdraw from social situations, only exacerbating the feelings of isolation.
“The first step towards combatting loneliness is actually recognising that you feel lonely,” says Kate. “The second is making sure that you don’t bring guilt or shame into what is already a tumultuous mix of emotions. Loneliness is an issue which affects a lot of people at one point or another in their lives; what’s important is seizing the opportunity to change your situation.
“The key though, ultimately, is to make the distinction between being lonely and being alone,” Kate concludes. “Some people who live by themselves don’t feel lonely, while, equally, there are people living in shared accommodation who do. It’s not a clear-cut connection.”
So, what changes can we make to counter feelings of loneliness, regardless of whether we live independently or collectively?
Be emotionally honest Individuals thrive on genuine, meaningful connections, so take time to really consider what’s important to you and look to engage with people whose values align with your own. Social isolation often occurs when we try to fit in with groups who aren’t really our kind of people; striving to understand yourself is the first step towards creating more fulfilling relationships.
Reach out in real life While social media often creates the illusion of social contact, a phone call or face-to-face catch up with friends and family members will almost always provide a more positive form of interaction.
Engage outside your four walls Try meetup groups and seek out volunteering opportunities. Be making the most of your interests in a group setting you’re more likely to build meaningful connections, often with others looking to do exactly the same.
Don’t get hung up on human interaction People often overlook what a significant difference having a pet can make to our emotional wellbeing. Animals are proven to alleviate stress and simply talking out loud to a pet can create a welcome sense of company.
Seek professional help If you feel like things have gone beyond blue, you can access a number of free counselling services. Lifeline is just one of many that specialise in crisis support.