Loneliness, well-being and the importance of social relationships
Photo credit: Cia de Foto
March 26, 2012 // By:
In today’s Independent, an article by Sarah Cassidy suggests that loneliness is “as big a killer as smoking, obesity and alcohol” and that research shows a clear link between social interaction and increased longevity. Worryingly, the article suggests that over one million people aged over the age of 65 report themselves as often or always lonely.
There is now a large and growing evidence base showing the link between social relationships and well-being. In reviewing the scientific evidence to produce Five Ways to Well-being, we identified connecting with others as one of five key actions that individuals could take to enhance well-being. During the review, we also found studies showing that active social participation can help reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders.
A recent ONS article on “our relationships”, published as part of the programme on Measuring National Well-being, adds to the evidence base. The article, which uses data from the ONS Opinions Survey, shows that of the respondents who reported a high level of satisfaction with life (9 or 10 out of 10), 84% also reported high level of satisfaction with their personal relationships. The data also show that a significant proportion of respondents (14%) rate their satisfaction with their personal relationships as low or only moderate (6 or less out of 10). The ONS have not yet released the full dataset to allow a detailed analysis of how satisfaction with relationships varies changes with age and geographical region, but it will be interesting to see the results when they are.
Our own research suggests that the UK does poorly compared to its European neighbours when it comes to social relationships, especially for those under the age of 25. In National Accounts of Well-being, where we use data from the European Social Survey to assess the extent to which individuals have supportive relationships and experience a sense of trust and belonging, we rank the UK 15 out of 22 European countries for all age groups. Alarmingly, the UK ranks bottom for those under the age of 25. Denmark comes out on top on social well-being for all age groups, followed by Norway, Spain and Switzerland.
A positive outcome of yesterday’s summit on combating loneliness is that the Government seems poised to address the situation. Paul Burstow, the Care Services Minister, has announced that every local council is going to receive guidance on how to measure levels of loneliness and people at risk of loneliness in their areas. While this is a good first step, policy-makers need to go beyond just measurement – they need to identify policies that will improve social relationships and reduce loneliness and also implement them.