This blog is posted on behalf of one of our members, Paul Cann OBE.

“More research is needed”: the eternal verity closing many research projects.  But is it always needed?  Surely, after decades of research and reflection, we know enough about this cluster of emotions we term loneliness. 

In fact, the conceptual review of loneliness in 2019 by the What Works Centre for Well-Being (WWCW) found surprisingly little evidence about how younger people experience loneliness, though we know it affects them as much as older people.  The specific transitions navigated by younger people – leaving school, finding relationships, working out who you are – differ from those in later life.  But the resultant heartache is surely similar.  WWCW’s call for evidence to update that conceptual review was timely. 

Also timely is the union of the Centre with the Campaign to End Loneliness: surely a marriage made in Research Heaven.  The Campaign will use this to strengthen evidence on loneliness, ensuring that campaigning always shows the rigour associated with WWCW.  The Campaign’s passion should create powerful synergies, and help translate knowledge into action. The issue demands it.  We’ve heard a lot now about loneliness. There’s almost a danger of loneliness fatigue.  Yet that painful gap persists for so many whatever their age, between what you have in human contact and what you crave.

Meanwhile there is a lot of existing knowledge to use.   The Campaign has revisited its  “Promising Approaches” work, summarising diverse interventions which added value to communities –  from support groups for those who are bereaved to ways of helping older men stay sociably occupied, with a renewed sense of purpose.    

No one size fits all. The most powerful part of this report is not the spotlights on individual service brilliance, so much as its demonstrating how the moving parts of a community must work together to generate change. This diagram shows how in any community you must find affected groups, get people in place, and overcome the many digital, physical and psychological barriers to access.  If whole communities are enabled individuals can be empowered.

The Campaign’s critique lays a fresh emphasis on what we ourselves can do to become stronger, better able to cope with our feelings.  Our recent report ‘The Psychology of Loneliness’  shows how a better understanding of loneliness in our lives helps us take control – particularly through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, training in mindfulness or the development of other positive psychologies.  The integration of the “what I can do for myself” into our approach is vital. We have spent years examining services, activities and interventions “that work”.  Alongside that it’s also about how we can act to gain or retain agency, and resist one-sided what has been dubbed ‘compassionate ageism’ from well-meaning handouts.

The Centre has an impressive relevant track record. It has constantly exhibited a restless energy to get to the bottom of ‘well-being’– ages, groups, situations, personal actions, group interventions – to suggest directions for policy.  There’s more to be done to examine situations of, and unearth solutions for, especially, unpaid carers, young people leaving school or stuck in their college room, mothers closeted with small children, men without purpose, people isolated because their sexuality or ethnicity differs from many around them. 

The merger is also timely, as England’s first Loneliness Strategy is now two years old.  It committed 60 wide-ranging action points for government and other players to act on. It’s time to ensure follow-through. A central theme is the drive to turn social prescribing from topical jargon to empowering reality.  That we are apparently unique in having our own Loneliness Minister has been the subject of worldwide comment, sometimes admiring, sometimes sceptical.   It has certainly given us something to talk about in the increasingly global debates: from the strongly evidence-based Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness in the USA to the spirited recent call to action from Australia’s newly launched ‘Ending Loneliness Together’.  The Campaign is actively building these links. A universal human condition demands global cooperation.

It is certainly a weakness that we lack a coherent policy approach, to ground the strategy’s policy statements on loneliness in a concerted assault on the still-valid concept of ‘social exclusion’: the multiple related challenges, from poverty to housing to discrimination which impede people.  These form the context to loneliness. Without tackling what’s around people who are lonely,  individual disconnected forays to help will remain just that.  But it was a helpful start. We believe that the imminent report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on loneliness should and will also push for a connected approach: a joined-up strategy for progress post-Covid.

Covid has surely given an injection of adrenaline to anyone for whom loneliness was fading as an issue.  In lockdown we confronted the social isolation of many people.  We were stirred to act to reach out and make communities more supportive. The ‘connected recovery’ must hold onto the good learned in this terrible time, to: bridge the digital chasm; back local champions to know their streets and act; and promote kinder communities.   

We know so much already from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others about how kinder communities work, and what works to bring people together, to help create that “infrastructure of kindness”. What Covid brings us back to confront is the primacy of  communities, and underpinning this the sense of shared ground.  The late Jo Cox MP inspired us in highlighting how much we share as opposed to the things which divide us. There is now a network of ‘In Common’ organisations promoting community cohesion. “In Common” – now that, truly, is an eternal verity.

  1. Conceptual review of loneliness, What Works Centre for Well-Being July 2019:
  2. Updated conceptual review on loneliness: evidence call December 2020
  3. Towards a social psychology of loneliness, Perlman & Peplau 1981
  4. Promising Approaches Revisited: effective action on loneliness in later life, Jopling 2020
  5. The Psychology of Loneliness: Why it matters and what we can do 2020
  6. A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change HM Government, 2018
  7. Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, USA 2020.
  8. Ending Loneliness Together, Australia 2020
  9. Liveable Lives project: research studies 2014-2016, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  10. More in Common movement:

This blog first appeared on the website of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in February 2021.