Why tackling loneliness can boost our health

Author Kate Leaver talks to Ann Chadwick about loneliness, shame and what really matters most ahead of her appearance in Harrogate later this month.

Author Kate Leaver is in Harrogate later this month to talk about loneliness.
Author Kate Leaver is in Harrogate later this month to talk about loneliness.

Moving to the other side of the world can certainly make you think. For Australian journalist Kate Leaver, a move to London three and a half years ago made her ponder the nature of friendship.

“I had come to the end of a long-term relationship and was at a stage in my career where I felt I needed a big life change.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In Sydney, Leaver was the features editor of Cosmopolitan before moving into digital journalism. She carved a space penning human interest stories for the Guardian, Vogue and The Pool while writing her book, The Friendship Cure, which took a year to research and write.

“I have a small group of university friends who are my favourite people on the planet but geographically we were separated.

“I didn’t have contact accept via WhatsApp.

“It got me thinking about the nature of friendship and how it changes.”

She also read an article that said we tend to get lonely as we get older because we don’t prioritise our friendships. “That frightened me.”

Her research found that loneliness is the new taboo. “I interviewed some really brave, generous people who were very honest. But they didn’t feel comfortable telling people close to them that they were lonely – their wife or mother or sister. There’s a shame and guilt attached. To say out loud the words, ‘I feel lonely’, we think – wrongly – is saying, ‘I’m unlikeable’.

“I spoke to a psychiatrist in the States who said he kept having people come to him and self-diagnose with depression. He was really shocked because he had to tell them you’re not clinically depressed, you’re just lonely. And people were more ashamed to tell him they were lonely, then they were depressed.”

She tackles the subject in The Friendship Cure. “I was really hoping that people would pick it up if they were lonely, or would pick it up and maybe realise they were lonely, and 
feel less lonely.”

Loneliness can damage our health, with statistics now suggesting it is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“There’s a study that says loneliness makes us more likely to interpret other people’s behaviour as being confrontational, or aggressive.

“Loneliness has a way of feeding on itself and making us more isolated and alone.”

So how do we make friends as an adult? Leaver suggests we nurture friendships at work; research shows it makes you better at your job and happier.

She also advises a little community effort on the street you live – inviting neighbours in for a cuppa. And to embrace the internet.

“There are specific friendship apps like Bumble so you know people are willing to be friends just by being there.”

Saying that, as a ‘woman online who has opinions’, Kate has experienced trolling, and understands that the internet can fuel political divisiveness and personal attacks.

Which is why she feels we need ‘an aggressive campaign of kindness.’

Leaver will be discussing all this when she appears at a Berwins Salon North event, hosted by Harrogate International Festivals, later this month.

She’ll be joined by Mark Miodownik, one of the UK’s leading science communicators, and the academic Roger Hampson on how the smart-machines revolution is re-shaping our lives and our societies.

“Really what I’m asking people to do in my book is to stop and think about what matters most.”

Kate Leaver is appearing at The Crown Hotel, Harrogate, at 7.30pm, January 24. For details go to harrogateinternationalfestivals.com or call 01423 562 303.