Monday 24 October 2016

Lonely planet: why an increasing number of adults are feeling isolated

With the news that increasing numbers of us are living alone comes the question - are more of us also living with loneliness? Our reporter investigates how singlehood, social isolation and social media are feeding a silent epidemic in society

Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30

Maria Ryan, a child psychotherapist, shared with her Snapchat followers how lonely she is after a day's work with children. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Maria Ryan, a child psychotherapist, shared with her Snapchat followers how lonely she is after a day's work with children. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Mary Kennedy spoke out about feelings of loneliness.
Actress Rachel Weisz also raised the issue of loneliness

When Adele goes on stage in massive arenas around the world, a groundswell of love and adoration washes over her as the crowds go wild and hang on every word and note from her lips. She's the most popular person in the room, revered and admired wherever she goes, and yet, the 'Hello' singer admits to feeling isolated and alone on tour.

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"There is something quite lonely about going on stage in front of loads of people and then everyone going home," she said in a BBC Radio One interview. "It sounds really silly. I'm sure they would hang out with me if I invited them back to my hotel, but I feel quite on my own a lot on tour."

Adele isn't the only one to make a surprising admission to loneliness, even though we fondly imagine our celebrities to be constantly surrounded by pals and hanging out at the coolest parties.

The reality is that everyone is vulnerable to feelings of isolation - unless you're Kylie Jenner, of course, and your best friends actually appear to permanently live at your house, partying, joking around and helpfully modelling your latest bronze Kyshadow make-up palette to entice your followers to buy it.

Actress Rachel Weisz recently confessed that she spent much of her 20s feeling lonely, and would "eat pizza at home by myself, rent movies - all the clichés."

The father of Harry Styles' best friend Ben Winston recently said that the One Direction singer had taken to visiting their home regularly for a comforting home-cooked stew as he was lonely.

And the organisation Age Friendly Ireland has revealed that one in three Irish people over the age of 65 feel lonely. On the other end of the spectrum, it also affects young people. aims to give people between 16 and 25 the information they need to live active, happy and healthy lives, and according to its communications officer, Sara Singleton, loneliness can affect people at any age.

"Feelings of loneliness are common among young people finishing school to start working or go to college, as this often means separating from school friends and the family home," she says.

"Emigrating to find work is increasingly common, and starting a new life away from your established social group and support networks can leave people feeling very lonely. However, you can also be surrounded by people but feel disconnected from them. If you feel misunderstood and if you feel you can't share what your feeling with others around you, you will feel isolated and lonely."

At a time when we've never been more connected through social media, studies suggest that more people than ever are feeling isolated. How can this be, when social networking is great fun and we can chat with like-minded people, get inspired by other people's lives, find a date, expand our knowledge and generally entertain ourselves all by looking at our phones?

That's the upside, but while we're busy Instagramming the best version of ourselves to the world, everyone else is at it too, and it becomes hard at times to distinguish what is real from what is cleverly, artfully filtered and presented as "reality."

The tendency to only share the happy highlights of our generally mundane lives can exacerbate our fear of not measuring up to what seems like everyone else's magical existences.

While studies have shown that people actually prefer people who show genuine vulnerability or embarrassment, it can be hard to summon up the courage to share the less glittering moments and feelings we experience in case people perceive them as a weakness.

Yet genuine shared experiences are crucial to emotional closeness between friends, and they deepen the connection we feel to one another. Being lonely or feeling down or despondent are all part of the human condition, but we can fear being vulnerable or exposing our innermost thoughts and fears.

While we're chatting to each other constantly online, there is no substitute for the human voice and physical connection of being in the company of pals. It isn't always possible though, because we are all stretching ourselves in every direction, juggling life, family and friends and climbing career ladders.

RTÉ presenter Mary Kennedy hit a nerve when she spoke about experiencing moments of loneliness in her book, 'What Matters: Reflections on Important Things in Life'. She's a successful broadcaster with a wide circle of friends, but her frank admission struck a chord with readers all over the country. "Loneliness is a fact of life, and anyone who says otherwise is delusional or not living in the real world," she said.

Play therapist and child psychotherapist Maria Ryan is a hugely popular personality on Snapchat (mariaryan2014), with her witty banter, upbeat personality and tales of her devotion to Colin Farrell and love for her cat, Karen. The 37-year-old Limerick woman has been living in Dublin for the past decade, and one day last week, when feeling a little "flattened by life," she opened up to her thousands of followers about it.

"I was surprised to get so many messages from women in their 30s and 40s who identified with what I was talking about," she says. "Some were married with kids or had partners, while others were single or separated. I was so grateful for the lovely response I got, and it helped me to see that other people were experiencing pangs of loneliness at times too."

Maria is conscious that a lot of her feelings currently stem from being bereaved, as her beloved dad Patrick passed away in early 2015 and a close uncle died three months ago. She lost her mum Mary when she was 16 and was very close to her dad. She has one brother Dominic in Limerick and a small extended family.

Maria works alone with children with severe special needs, and while she adores her job, there are times when she doesn't have adult conversations all day at work.

"Many of the friends I grew up with have moved away," she says, "so even when I go home there wouldn't be too many people around to say hello to or meet up with. I have really great friends in Dublin, but many of them have babies and they're busy a lot of the time.

"I really miss my dad, and there were three or four moments in the past few months when financial stuff was going on, and all I wanted was for my dad to tell me that things were going to be okay."

Maria thinks that being single partly contributes to how she's feeling. She admits to being a bit disappointed that she hasn't found that special person yet, as she is positive and optimistic, and puts so much good energy into being open to meeting people, going on blind dates or experiencing new things.

However, she takes measures to counteract the lonely moments in her spare time by hiking at weekends and meeting up with other people. She also finds Snapchat to be great for connecting with people.

She is trying to be kind to herself while she's feeling a little flat, and doesn't put pressure on herself to "get over" her grief.

"I just had to connect with the little person inside who really misses her dad," she says. "I think opening a conversation with others about what we're really feeling can be really helpful. When I did, it was really nice to realise that I wasn't alone in the loneliness."

Irish Independent

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