At this time of year churches are going all out to make sure that no-one need be lonely, with a whole range of events and community outreaches.* Many will even be arranging transport for people who couldn’t come otherwise. All this will make a world of difference for tens of thousands of people this Christmas time – emotionally and physically, as studies show that feelings of loneliness are more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Feeling lonely can shorten your life.
But how to help people who feel lonely, even in a crowd? A post on Facebook read, “I bless all those people who offer us dinner and company but it is often really difficult to be that one person who is not part of the family around the table and you still feel lonely. It’s nobody’s fault that this happens…. You’ve still got to come home to emptiness. God bless everyone who is alone, He is always with you and will listen to you.’
Another person posted: ‘Don’t forget that some people PREFER to be alone if they can’t be with the one they love – memories can be wonderful.’ People handle loss and life in different ways, and many are quite contented to live alone most of the time.
We’re very good at tackling loneliness caused by social isolation, but feel pretty helpless with people with ‘essential’, or internalised loneliness. A major cause is said to be a sense of not belonging to the group, of being different. Research for Age UK found that in older people it was because they felt worthless, often as a result of absorbing ageist attitudes about old age.
‘Tackling loneliness’ is one of the topics I’m asked to speak about in churches and Christian events, such as CRE in Manchester in October. I can encourage by giving ideas and describing examples of activities that work, that are helping to break down social isolation, but how to reach the ‘lonely inside’? Someone pointed out to me that even in our churches there are people like this – they rarely speak to anyone and slip out as soon as the service ends.
So what’s the answer? In an article about building relationships with children, clinical psychologist Oliver James describes how to ‘reset the emotional thermostats of children aged three to puberty’ with a method he developed called ‘love bombing’. * Few of us are in a position to be able to ‘love bomb’ an adult like this, but we could give little drops at a time. The Bible talks about the power of love: Solomon said that it is more powerful than death and 1 Corinthians 13:8 tells us that ‘love never fails’. Everything else will pass away, but not love. We can ask God to help us translate that into practice.
There’s something that ‘lonely-inside’ people can do that helps greatly. It’s so simple it sounds not believable, but it works. It’s even been researched: there are many published studies about it.* Consider volunteering. Helping others creates a feedback loop that benefits the do-er, as much as the receiver. ‘Volunteering raised well-being to the same level as having salaries doubled,’ said one paper, ‘ and another noted that people who were less well integrated benefited the most.’
* (There’s an interactive map on the Faith in Later Life website where churches and faith groups have listed their events – just click on your region.)
*Google ‘health benefits of volunteer work’.