Loneliness and finding community

1 in 3 Australians recently reported experiencing high levels of loneliness. Here, clinical psychologist Emily Toner shares her advice for combatting loneliness by building community.

Written by Emily Toner
August 2023

community garden

In my early 30s I lived alone in an apartment in the inner suburbs of Melbourne for many years. After many fun (and some very questionable) share house experiences, I realised that I would do almost anything to have my own nice mugs lined up in the cupboard, and to be able to sleep at night knowing that when I entered the kitchen the next morning, it would be exactly as I left it. So, I took the plunge and moved out into my own small apartment.    

For the first few days I found myself talking out loud to myself constantly.

“What shall we have for dinner tonight, Emily? How about a nice bath? I think it might be bedtime.”

I’m not sure who I was talking to but I’m hoping I’m not the only one who can relate. I imagine it was a form of self-soothing.

After a while, as I settled into life on my own, I began to cherish the moments of quiet: the opportunity to read my book uninterrupted, to play music that no one could hear, to cook nourishing meals and eat them mindfully with no distractions. It felt wonderful to be in my own presence. 

After a time however, I noticed other feelings starting to surface. As an extrovert who loves the energy that being around like-hearted people brings, I yearned to feel seen. I realised that I could go out and about in my local area, go to the neighbourhood cafe, go to the supermarket, go for a walk and yet not actually really ever connect with anyone. When I got home, even though I had been surrounded by people, I still felt alone. I realised I was lonely.

If you can, like me, remember or relate to significant periods of loneliness in your life, then you are — ironically — not alone. 1 in 3 Australians recently reported experiencing a high level of loneliness, according to research released by Medibank last year.

It’s important to note the difference between loneliness and social isolation. One can be socially isolated and not lonely; for example, if you enjoy your own company and feel nourished by it. Alternatively, you can be surrounded by people — even be in a romantic relationship — and yet still feel quite alone. 

The importance of social support

One of the first things I learnt during my clinical psychology training is the protective nature of social relationships and social support. If someone presents with depression, one of the first things you might do is establish what kind of support network this client has, because reconnecting them to these people is an important step in the healing process.

There are different types of social support, and all are valid and useful in protecting someone from mental health issues and loneliness. Family and close relationships are a key source of social engagement, as is the broader notion of community-based social ties. 

In Western culture we pay a lot of attention to the importance of our close relationships and friendships, but less attention to the importance of feeling integrated into our local community, which begs the question: could our happiness levels be taking a hit because of this?

Finding your community

A few years ago I travelled to Nepal and Bhutan to take part in a leadership summit with the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan. It was an incredible experience, but the deepest learning didn’t come from the lectures or talks, it came from observing the community.

As we walked around town with our host ‘brother’, he introduced us to a new person every few minutes that he professed was an auntie, grandmother, brother or sister. I was bowled over by the amount of relatives he had! I later found out of course that these ‘family members’ were not blood relatives, but important people within his huge, tightknit community.     

So, what can we do in our own lives to take leaf out of the book of the Nepalese and Bhutanese? How can we strengthen our community?

For many, it comes naturally, through work or your children’s school, or specific hobbies you might have done for a long time. For those who are retired, or without kids, or who have solitary hobbies, it can be hard to know where to begin. 

In these cases, there are a few different ways one might start to build community. I find the best ones help me achieve my personal wellbeing and growth goals as well as build my social network.

Here are my top five ways to get connected.

Join an existing community

Join a community that already exists, one that revolves around being active. If you are into sport, then your local parkrun is an amazingly welcoming community, or I’ve always found many yoga or meditation studios are set up to encourage connection.

In other words: find somewhere you can have a cup of tea and a chat with others before or after class!

Invest in relationships with your neighbours

Get to know your neighbours by taking part in a local community cleanup or neighbourhood event. If there isn’t much going on in your area, start your own neighbourhood meetup. A simple invite to a street morning tea at the local cafe dropped in a few letterboxes might be a nice place to start. You never know when it might come in handy to have a better relationship with your neighbours!  

Join a community garden

Join a community garden or participate in a local gardening group. You’ll get the double benefit that comes from spending time in nature and connecting with others who share a love for gardening.

Take a fun class or course

Enrolling in a group class can be an effective way to meet new people with similar interests and learn new skills. It can also provide a sense of accomplishment and personal growth.

Explore your local area

Get out of the house and enjoy the amazing array of free cultural events, arts shows and music events around your region. Challenge yourself to explore new venues and areas you haven’t been to before.

If you don’t want to fly solo, you can use apps like Nextdoor or Meetup to find and connect with people who share similar interests or live in the same area to go and do things with.

Finding the right balance

We are social creatures, or as the scientists like to put it, we are ‘bonding mammals’. In the age of smartphones, it is all too easy to accidentally prioritise connections to strangers on social media over the true sense of belonging that comes from showing up for our local, real community. This can lead to a sense of emptiness and can deprive us of the meaning that comes from those real (and sometimes awkward!) connections.

There is no doubt many of us could benefit from prioritising community and connection a little bit higher on our list, present company included. You even might like to check in with yourself now by asking the question, “How many eyes have I looked into today?” If the answer is not many, then go and find some!

Fast forward to today, and I still have my mugs sitting neatly in the cupboard. Luckily, my partner is pretty good at keeping the kitchen clean and just as we left it.

These days though, those mugs are less a beacon of independence and more a reminder of the joy that comes from sharing a cup of tea with others.

As it turns out, I probably need other people more than I thought.  

Looking for something else?

Visit We Are Lonely for more information.