According to technology firm Kaspersky, two in five UK adults felt lonely before the coronavirus lockdown had even begun. 'Generation Z', those aged 16-24, was identified as the loneliest age demographic: 73% of people in this age group admitted to feeling lonely during lockdown at least some of the time.
This finding does not surprise me at all. It makes me feel sad and also very protective towards the young who not only have to deal with great challenges such as education, employment, housing and student debt, but also loneliness and isolation. Unlike the older generation who have their life experience, social circle and resilience to act as a buffer, most of the younger generation do not have the confidence and maturity to deal with such emotional challenges.
Loneliness has become a pandemic of our times, although, ironically, we have the best ever technology to connect us. Sometimes, we feel like being locked in a glass capsule from which we can see the comings and goings of the outside world but are unable to join it.
I worry about my two young adult children a great deal, particularly after they left home and went to university. I remember a conversation I had with my son when he discussed his MA options with us. He said that he and his friends did not want to apply for a place at another university because they had to start all over again. By this he meant making new friends. I said to him that he could simply make some new friends in a new place. He said it was not that easy. I said it was easy. You speak to people and get to know them. My son said that you couldn't do that. Otherwise people would think you were desperate or uncool.
I am not an expert in the social etiquette to which today's young subscribe. However, I would much prefer to be seen as being uncool rather than feeling lonely or isolated. In order to make new friends, someone has to be the icebreaker. The person you speak to might feel relieved and glad that you made the first move. It is totally cool to be the one to reach out.
When my daughter started school (a Roman Catholic Church school), I did not know anyone, as I was new to the area. Many parents already knew each other through church or their elder children. They would stand together and talk to each other at the school gate. One day, I decided to speak to one of the mothers. She was delighted that I did so. It turned out that she was also new to the area. I have remained friends with her and other mothers. My daughter is still friends with the children whose mothers I had befriended all those years ago.
I have enjoyed friendship with people who are older than me since I was a young child. My eldest friend is a 94 years old lady who was born in India to a British army officer father and then went on to live in Nigeria before moving back to the UK in the sixties. I have found her wisdom, independence and fortitude life enriching and inspiring, not to mention the hilarious anecdotes she has collected through her long and interesting life.
My son once asked me why I had so many old lady friends. My answer was I found them most interesting and having them in my life offers comfort. Perhaps I was subconsciously looking for a mother figure in them as my own mother and I lived in different countries while she was alive. Another rewarding aspect of having friends who are much older than oneself is their perspective. Sometimes I was weighed down by certain worries, but after I talked to my mature friends, those worries were no more.
While my daughter lived in London as a student, I suggested that she and her friends take turns to cook and share meals at each other's place. I did that often when I was single in China, as I did not have any family or relatives in that city. I enjoyed those occasions enormously. We would forget about stress at work, just being happy and having no care in the world. When I was with friends, loneliness would not even get a look in.
Social gatherings like this are obviously out of the question as long as social distancing is still in place. My daughter has been sharing baking experiences with friends on Zoom since the lockdown started.
Feeling lonely or isolated or being depressed is not a sign of weakness or failure. Feeling like a failure is not a failure. It is only human that we experience such emotions.
Three years ago, I had to travel to Dubai for an assignment alone. When I reached the hotel it was already late at night. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and desolation. I was so far away from my loved ones and I did not know a single soul in Dubai. I did not want to be drawn into this dark place. Therefore I decided to send messages to friends who I had not been in touch with for quite a while. Despite living in different time zones, I received a reply from everyone. Two of them said that they were actually thinking of me. My spirit was lifted instantly.
Being a self-employed conference interpreter means I have peaks and troughs in my work. When business is quiet, I will spend days on end at home alone. All of my local friends work during office hours. Some days I feel totally cut off from the rest of the world. I have worked out ways to combat this sense of isolation by going to the shops for a pint of milk or a pack of biscuits, or going for a walk in the woods or fields. I always make an effort to talk to an elderly person who walks alone. Or cooing over a baby or smiling at a toddler. A smile on a child's sweet face could melt ice, not to mention one's heart.
I am lucky I live in a village where people are most friendly. I was rewarded by every single trip out of the house. When you least feel like leaving the house, that is when you most need to do so. In the past, I would say to myself that I would go out for a walk when I feel better. Now I know that in order to feel better I need to go out.
There is no shame attached to feeling down or totally alone. Every single one of us feel like that at some point in life, sometimes quite often and for a long period of time. Reach out to old friends and new. For a young person, you could ring up your grandparents or a favourite aunt or uncle as a start. You will be surprised how many people are glad to hear from you. The relative you speak to might feel lonely just like you. Your phone call or message will brighten their day. So in a sense, you are helping them. It is often the case that when you help others you also help yourself. Interacting with mature relatives will stand you in good stead, as you are bound to work with people from different age groups.
You could also get in touch with a teacher who has been instrumental in your academic or personal journey. You could tell them how you are doing and how much you appreciate their support during your student days. If you do that, you will definitely make their faces glow with pride. I met my daughter's reception teacher and her assistant when I went to an event hosted by her first school years after she had left there. I told the two ladies how much we appreciated their help and how well their former pupils were doing. The teacher said to her former assistant: 'This will keep us going.' I shall never forget the joy and pride on their faces.
Life is and will be challenging at these worrying and uncertain times. However, the world is not a frightening and cold place. There are many people out there just like you, feeling lonely and isolated. When you move to a new place or join a new company, be the brave one who initiates a conversation with someone new. You could start by greeting your immediate neighbours or a dog walker in your neighbourhood or the person who serves you at the local shop or cafe. It is totally safe to do so, as you are no longer at the school gate or a playground. The more people you speak to, the more comfortable and confident you will become.
As long as you are surrounded by friends, you are going to be alright.