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The geography of loneliness

  • 01 March 2024
  Often run together, ‘loneliness’ is the subjective feeling of inadequate meaningful contact, while ‘social isolation’ is its objectively measurable cousin. Australia is facing high rates of both, with isolation and loneliness described as an ‘epidemic’ even before the Covid pandemic. This epidemic has adverse health effects, and rates are likely rising. But what can we do about it? We have the ability, without much difficulty, to better design our cities, services and social care to enable meaningful connections between people, promote wellbeing, and help to guard against harms caused by habitual loneliness. But we need to orient ourselves to that task and be prepared to be a little creative in the ways we go about that. Referencing the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report, the authors of a 2023 article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry observed that:


Almost a quarter of people living in Australia report that they rarely or never feel close to people, rarely or never have someone to talk to, and rarely or never have people they can turn to … Individuals who are socially isolated are up to five times more likely to die prematurely than individuals with strong social ties, due to many interlinked factors.


Meanwhile, a 2021 report from the Queensland Parliament’s Community Support and Services Committee noted data showing ‘43 per cent of all Queenslanders often felt very lonely’. There are several complex reasons for this situation — smaller families, an ageing population, a widening technological divide — but the implications are significant.

The Committee also heard evidence from one hospital and health service of the ‘wealth of evidence from medical, epidemiological, psychological and social literature showing that social connectedness is a strong predictor of mental health, physical health, cognitive health and general well-being outcomes’.

Our need for meaningful social contact is so basic that it’s actually hard to describe it. As Rutger Bregman writes in Humankind, we humans ‘crave togetherness and interaction’. Without this we suffer; indeed, loneliness can make us so unwell its impacts on health have been compared to smoking. It is telling that one of the cruellest punishments humans can suffer is forced isolation, in the form of solitary confinement. Being shut off from others is amongst our most extreme forms of deprivation. 

Concerns about isolation and loneliness, of course, reach beyond Australia. The United States Surgeon General considers the ‘epidemic of loneliness and isolation’ such a significant health risk that last year